3D meets biology

Sheila Moorcroft, Research Director

3D films and TVs, applications in gaming, PCs and on the web, in augmented reality marketing and telepresence communications are arriving in the marketplace thick and fast. They are set to revolutionise our lives, in particular leisure – for example, enabling us to interact and ‘meet’ friends when we are all in different places. But 3D is also coming to other areas, which could revolutionise our lives just as much: biological imaging.
What is changing?
A new microscope will enable researchers to see, non-invasively inside cells, to watch the interactions and dynamics of the internal workings of cells revealing their 3 dimensional shapes. The technique enables far greater detail – 10 -20 nanometres – and more importantly begins to overcome the problems of real time cell observation: previous techniques ‘killed’ the cells in the process.

A new 3D mammogram service has started in the USA. Current mammogram technology provides only 2D images, making detection of abnormalities more difficult. The new technology provides a 7% increase in accuracy and detection, visibility and sensitivity.

Two far less sophisticated, but potentially very useful developments provide 3D images of the human body. The first, and more sophisticated, is on the web. It enables viewers to examine parts of the body in 3D layer by layer, delving deeper inside, showing all the various systems and parts and enabling you to view it from different angles. The second is an Android phone app, enabling similar views but in less detail and sophistication.

Why is this important?
These disparate developments will potentially benefit all of us in the long run, as they contribute to training, detection and basic research into health care.

The 3D images on the web provide an educational tool previously only available in static form in expensive books. Such detailed images can bring education and training to all. They are part of a digital education revolution where free information available on the web bears close comparison to the content of expensive text books. As education budgets come under pressure, the web may provide a powerful alternative.

Early detection is a critical part of the radically improved cancer survival rates; in the US alone, some 40 million mammograms are completed each year. Breast cancer remains the most common cancer among women, with some 1.4 million diagnosed each year worldwide and nearly half a million deaths in 2008. If the improved detail translated directly into improved detection, it could save 35,000 lives each year.

Improved cell biology research techniques go hand in hand with the long term, fundamental changes in health care: the development of personalised medicines, organ transplants and organ growth, genetics, stem cell research and proteomics. Being able to see inside cells can bring the potential of these a small step closer.


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