Australia lands $5 million microscope; will help in cancer, diabetes research

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A powerful Dutch-made $5 million Titan Krios microscope has been installed at the Monash University, Melbourne giving Australian researchers see molecular structures at very high resolution enabling them to carry out research in cancer, diabetes, malaria and many more such diseases.

The 3-metre tall microscope is the centrepiece of the $20 million Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Centre for Structural Cryo Electron Microscopy, part of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging and is an essential instrument that will further Australia’s research efforts towards better treatment for diseases from cancer and malaria to diabetes, rheumatism and multiple sclerosis.

“Understanding our immune system is central to fighting cancer, infectious diseases such as malaria, and auto-immune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatism and multiple sclerosis”, said Professor James Whisstock who is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging. “The key to understanding and treating these diseases lies in understanding how proteins and cells interact at the molecular level.”

Australian researchers had to fly to Europe, Britain or the US to access similar microscopes and one of the main concerns was the transport of biological material.

Titan Krios electron microscope works by firing a stream of high-energy electrons through a thin sample that’s frozen in a pool of liquid ethane at 200°C below zero. Deflected electrons in the beam can be used to create a two-dimensional image of the sample. Multiple two-dimensional images generated through these deflections can be automatically pieced together to determine the three-dimensional shapes.

Snap-freezing the cells will allow researchers to look at immune molecules in a state as close as practical to living cells. Whilst the electron beam allows much greater magnification than in visible-light microscopes, achieving magnification of several billion times, states a Monash University press release.

Professor Whisstock added that the microscope is powerful enough to resolve intricate 3D shapes enabling researchers to identify position of individual atoms within a biological molecule. This information will enable researchers to create detailed models including the molecules’ loops and side chains.

“We want to transform our understanding of the human immune system and position Australia at the leading edge of that field – this microscope will enable us to do that”, the professor added.