The new technique works by combining 2D images of a transparent cell recorded by an optical microscope attached to video camera as the cell spins in space. A set of customized geometric scanning algorithms are then used to automatically construct a 3D model of both its exterior membrane and interior structure – all without damaging the cell or requiring great technical expertise on the part of the investigator.
At present, the HP system reproduces a cell and its interior elements as regular-shaped objects. The project’s next phase aims to add the capacity to map and reproduce irregular – and thus more accurate – shapes, and to automatically identify a cell’s various constituent parts.
In addition to creating digital 3D reproductions of the cells, Lei and colleagues are printing 3D cell models with large format HP 3D printers. “The research literature tells us that there’s something different about viewing a physical 3D model versus seeing it on a screen,” Lei explains. “That alternative way of seeing might offer biologists insights they’d otherwise not gain.”
The modeling research grew out of work by HP colleagues who were using an electrically charged microfluidics chip to separate cancer cells from other kinds of cells. They noticed that the separation process also caused the cancer cells to spin. That raised the possibility of exploiting that spinning motion in some way to understand the cells better.
The modeling project that resulted is very much exploratory, notes Lei. “We don’t have preconceived ideas about what results we will get, but we are interested in following up opportunities as they arise,” she says.
To the extent that 3D imaging can add to our understanding of a cancer cells’ properties, it might in turn help improve the lab’s investigations into cell separation, which could yield new kinds of cancer diagnostics.
But it might also be of wider value in helping us understand the geometry of any kind of cell – and the dynamic processes taking place within cells – says Jerry Liu, Senior Research Manager at HP Labs.
“There are many areas of life science research that would benefit from a quick and inexpensive method to explore a cell’s interior structures and reveal how these structures change over time,” Liu suggests. “We’re excited to see where this might go.”