When Professor Chen Shih-chi from the Department of Mechanical and Automation Engineering and his team began developing a new precision tissue-cutting machine for pathological research seven years ago, one of the first things they experimented with was tofu. Today, this humble staple of Asian cuisine can be credited for transforming the face of 3D imaging and drug screening, as the team’s multi-patented novel tissue-sectioning solution continues to make waves in top research communities across the world.
Opening new pathways into brain research
A microtome is an instrument that sections biological specimens into very thin slices for microscopic examination; however, traditional microtomes have only been able to process fixed or hardened tissues. To enable the sectioning of soft or live tissue into slices of desired thickness for whole brain/organ super-resolution imaging, novel solutions were necessary – which is why Professor Chen’s precision engineering expertise was sought by leading research groups to explore new ways that could open a new chapter in brain research, such as the construction of 3D neural connection maps.
In the course of their research, Professor Chen and his team found that the higher the frequency at which a microtome’s blade oscillated, the stiffer the soft tissue sample would get and become easier to cut. For that reason, their novel solution operates at a speed of 350Hz, which is three to eight times faster than other microtomes in the market, and is able to section soft tissue as well as tissue that has been optically cleared or expanded.
The microtome can also minimise cellular damage while maintaining high cell viability, even on sectioned surfaces. As a result, the precision-sectioned slices can be cultured in vitro for a long time, allowing for drug screenings and other new applications.
An award-winning medical breakthrough
On top of clinching a gold medal in the International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in 2022, Professor Chen and his team’s ultrafast oscillating blade microtome has been bringing professionals in the fields of precision engineering and biomedicine together through Precision Cut Limited – a CUHK spin-off company that was formed to commercialise the promising technology in the wider market. Due to its unwavering commitment to the development of these microtomes, the company recently came out tops in the 6th CUHK Entrepreneurship Competition. The microtomes were recognised for their important role in enhancing the study of biology and disease in laboratories while bringing about new discoveries in the fields of pathology and bio-photonics.
Furthermore, the team has gone a step further by combining the microtome’s automatic 3D tissue sectioning system with a fluorescence microscopy imaging platform to realise the first-ever low-cost super-resolution 3D imaging solution. The solution’s effectiveness was proven through the 3D super-resolution imaging of single neuron dendritic branches in a mouse’s brain (<100nm) during the development process.
Ultimately, through the continual pushing of boundaries, Professor Chen and his team’s novel solution has successfully opened up new possibilities for more exciting breakthroughs to come in research and beyond – promising a better world for all.
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