Chipscope, the microscope on a chip that can revolutionize medicine

Ultraminiaturized high resolution microscope scheme. [Image: Chipscope Project / Disclosure]

Microscope on a chip

Resolution obtained with conventional optical microscopes is limited because of physical laws. This means that they can not be used to directly observe isolated proteins, DNA molecules or inside living cells, which are smaller than the visible wavelength of light.

Today, it is only possible to do this through indirect observation, that is, with the interpretation of the data measured by electronic microscopes - which are complex, expensive and bulky.

It occurs that electronic microscopes are not suitable for the observation of delicate living tissue; in addition to complex preparations, the energy they use "fries" the samples.

To overcome these limitations, a group of researchers from several countries, funded by the European Union, is developing a microscope the size of a chip that uses light-emitting diode arrays (LEDs), with a diameter smaller than a human hair, to illuminate the object being observed.

The miniaturized microscope called "chipscópio" ( ChipScope ), combines simplicity, ease of operation, accessibility and clear, high resolution optics.

Schematic of the chipscope and photo of the prototype. [Image: Chipscope Project / Disclosure] 

Miniaturized Microscope

These future microscopes on a chip can also be integrated into consumer electronics just as cameras are embedded in mobile phones. The sample is placed on the LEDs and underneath a photodetector that picks up the light signals.

Unlike conventional microscopy, spatial resolution is provided by the LEDs, not by the optical detection system. Therefore, this system does not require specific alignments or complex focus systems.

The LEDs can be turned on and off individually at high speed, allowing cells to be observed in real time, capturing up to 10 frames per second.

This new miniaturized microscopy technology promises to give impetus to research in areas that currently use optical microscopes - particularly in medicine. It will also assist field researchers without access to laboratories or other scientific infrastructures.

The first version of the Chipscope microscope is ready and being tested by the team in the study of the development of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic age-related lung disease that kills 500,000 people worldwide each year.

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