Singaporean finds way to boost microscope power

Invention allows lab device to create high-res images

A Singaporean researcher has come up with a way to turn any standard microscope into a machine that can quickly capture up to 100 times more information.

The invention can create high-resolution images of clinical samples, such as blood cells to determine infections, and pathology slides to look for cancer cells.

This could be a boon in developing countries where doctors and researchers may not have access to high-end microscopes.

The science behind the invention was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Photonics last year, and a company has been formed to sell microscopes packaged with the technology by the end of the year.

Professor Yang Chang Huei, a Singaporean with five degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, led the work.

He is currently a professor of engineering at the California Institute of Technology in the United States.

"Microscopes are not perfect. Typically, you can only choose between a small field of view with very good resolution or a large field of view with poor resolution," he said.

"With this technology, we are able to achieve both high resolution and large field of view."

With the advent of digital pathology, more clinicians now use microscopes to capture digital snapshots of the samples, and then review these on a computer later, he added.

Prof Yang's invention involves replacing the microscope's existing light source with an array of LED lights.

These lights flash sequentially, illuminating the sample from different angles, and the microscope's digital camera captures these series of images.

A novel computer algorithm stitches the images together, creating a complete, high-resolution picture of the sample in about a minute.

Prof Yang co-founded a Singapore-based company, Clearbridge BioPhotonics, to commercialise his work.

It was awarded funding from the National Research Foundation last year, and is getting help from locally based technology incubator Clearbridge Accelerator. Mr Johnson Chen, the new firm's director, said it plans to sell a "self-contained box" that has both software and hardware for research and clinical use.

"In remote areas, pathologists may need to send samples to a large central hospital for processing. That's very time-consuming and patients may have to wait for weeks," said Prof Yang.

"If we can have our machine at a clinic in, for example, Africa, the pathologist there can scan the samples and upload the data. Then any pathologist in the world can look at the data and help with medical diagnoses if needed."

zengkun@sph.com.sg