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Revolutionary Medical Research Technology Coming to Northwest

A new microscope technology coming to the Northwest will allow researchers to see molecules at the atomic level. (Veronica Falconier, Siriam Subramaniam/National Cancer Institute)
A new microscope technology coming to the Northwest will allow researchers to see molecules at the atomic level. (Veronica Falconier, Siriam Subramaniam/National Cancer Institute)
May 23, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. - The new microscope technology coming to the Northwest will be like going from a film camera to digital in terms of detail.

The National Institutes of Health has chosen Oregon Health and Science University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., as the site for a powerful new microscope that could revolutionize medical research. The technology, known as cryo-electron microscopy, will allow researchers to see individual atoms in a molecule.

Michael Chapman, a professor of structural biology at OHSU, said one example of its practical use is studying the viruses as they've never been seen before, "and how they are assembled, how they get into cells, and advancing our understanding of how you might target therapies to disrupt different disease processes."

The new technology sends beams of electrons through samples instead of light. as with typical microscopes. Last year, three researchers who laid the foundation for this technique were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. NIH is investing nearly $130 million in the technology. The Northwest is one of three sites chosen, along with Stanford University in California and the New York Structural Biology Center in Manhattan.

Chapman said the technology has advantages over other microscope techniques because researchers are able to look at cells much closer to their natural state.

"You don't need particularly special preparation for these molecules," he said. "It's a lot easier to get them out of cells and then just look at them, and so it opens up the field to molecules and complexes that have been too challenging to study in the past."

NIH expects the technology to come online and offer its first service this fall. It will be fully running in four years.

More information from the National Institutes of Health is online at commonfund.nih.gov.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR