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Greg Blackman on the importance of optics for those working in the field of life sciences, from microscopy to measuring fluorescence with ultrafast spectroscopy


through a lens M

odern microscopes are highly advanced pieces of equipment allowing scientists to probe deeper into tissue and resolve ever

finer structures. Super resolution microscopy techniques, such as photoactivated localisation microscopy (PALM) or stimulated emission depletion microscopy (STED), are the current state-of-the-art, providing higher resolution than standard confocal microscopes. Confocal microscopes are typically diffraction limited to around half the wavelength of the illumination source.

While the technology surrounding microscopy continues to be refined at the cutting-edge, the challenges facing those building lower-spec microscopes with a limited budget remain considerable. Researchers at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH) and the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería in Peru, led by Dr Mirko Zimic, have developed a low- cost inverted microscope from stock optical components. The team hope to improve the diagnosis of endemic diseases in poverty-stricken areas with the device. Dr Zimic and his team are currently trialling one of the prototype systems at

a health centre in Trujillo in the north of Peru for diagnosing tuberculosis. The researchers built the system from optical components from Edmund Optics (EO); the work won first place in Edmund Optics’ 2011 higher education grants, with the team receiving $10,000 worth of EO products. ‘The project began with tuberculosis, although it can be expanded to other diseases,’ explains Dr Zimic. ‘This is not a state-of-the-art system, but a simple microscope comprised of affordable standard optical elements. It doesn’t have tremendous capacity, but has enough functionality for TB diagnosis. We hope the microscope will reduce diagnosis of multi-drug- resistant TB in Peru from 10 months to seven days.’ Tuberculosis is a major public health

problem in Peru and most developing countries. Early diagnosis of the disease is not common in Peru and multi-drug-resistant strains take even longer to diagnose. In 2000, Dr Gilman’s tuberculosis laboratory at UPCH developed a method to culture TB in a liquid rather than a solid medium (microscopic observation drug susceptibility). This allows TB to be diagnosed

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