Science in Images: Melanoma Cells

Over the last few days I’ve been struggling about what to post. America, as well as the world, has been engulfed in the post-election fall out and I don’t need to tell anyone how to feel about it. I’ve chosen instead to focus on positive things, so here is a picture from one of my many current projects.

These are B16/F10 cells, or melanoma. With these cells our lab is trying to specifically target cancer, allowing us to treat locally.


Cells can be influenced by external stimuli: receptors at the surface of a cell (built into its cell membrane) can act by receiving (binding to) extracellular molecules. I like to think of these as tiny code-lock doors. If we know the code, we can engineering a material to have the code inbuilt, allowing us to specifically interact with only those cells. Targeted treatment in this way would allow many patients to live better, longer lives.

Currently the therapeutic option for many patients, especially post-tumour removal, is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy has many side-effects; hair loss, weight loss,  nausea, vomiting, fatigue, as well as issues with drug resistance. By utilising cell surface receptors and only targeting the cells we wish destroy, we can make treatment more effective, less invasive and improve the quality of life for many.

There’s a lot of work to do before such therapy will be clinically available but every day, and every bit of research takes us closer. I, like many others, do this work because I want to help people, all people, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.


Bioengineering Facility Grand Opening

When I joined Michigan State University back in 2014, the Bioengineering building was just a shell. Now 2 years later, the building finally had it’s opening.

The aim of the new building is to bring together researchers, across a multitude of disciplines, to begin to answer some of the many unmet needs in medical research.

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I have often said the future of healthcare is interdisciplinary, so it is very reassuring to see Michigan State taking steps to ensure that there is a place on campus for this kind of collaboration. The building itself will house chemists, cell biologist and computer scientist to name just a few and will be organised in such a way that facilities and equipment are available to all.

Key to the opening of the new facility was the recruitment of a director who shared the same vision of research as a collaborative enterprise. The facility will be led by Chris Contag, a leader in imaging technology, whose remarks at the opening ceremony really emphasised the building’s future direction.
“The disciplines are growing to the point where they are intersecting with other disciplines, and so the frontiers of discovery are not just where one discipline hits the unknown, but where the junction of multiple disciplines come together.”


Researchers are set to move into the building in as soon as a month: it’s an exciting time for Michigan State!

The event was also covered by the state news and includes some extracts from an interview with me:

Science in Images: Tissue Mimics

If you ask most people, they have an opinion on the use of animals in research. Despite the need for animals in some situations, there are many scenarios where viable alternatives do exist.

Imaged below are hydrogels: soft-solids consisting of over 90% water. Hydrogels are already heavily utilised in research, from tissue engineering to drug delivery.


Hydrogels are great candidates for tissue mimics and in turn, the replacement of animals in some experiments. The properties of the gel can be individually tailored and designed such that the strength, charge and other characteristics are similar to a tissue sample.

In this case the hydogel is comprised of agarose, a polysacharide (carbohydrate), whose long chains make up the framework around which the water resides.

Hydrogels with similar properties to brain tissue were fabricated and used to test a large number of MRI contrast agents: the final therapeutic use is as an agent for labelling stem cells, for implantation into the brain, for cell therapy.

For cellular therapy to be effective, we need to know if cells remain in the correct location and are performing the correct function. One way to do is to label them before implantation, so we can image them with an MRI.

Samples of contrast agent are prepared and injected into the gel, before they are imaged. By using hydogels in this way, we can test many combinations of contrast agents quickly, cost-effectively and without the use of animals.


Science in Images: Fluorescent Staining of Mesenchymal Stem Cells

Mouse mesenchymal stem cells, incubated with polymer nanoparticles encapsulating the dye coumarin_6 (green) and the enzyme Cellulase (red).

Cells are incubated in chambers on a glass slide. During incubation endocytosis occurs: cells uptake the nanoparticles into them.

Cells have a mass of surface receptors, which can allow for very specific uptake. The uptake of nanoparticles by cells in this way can have huge implications for medical treatments, such directed chemotherapy.


After the cells have been incubated for around 24 hours, they are fixed and stained with further dyes, so the cytoskeleton (purple) and the nucleus (blue) of the cell can be seen. The first image shows a low magnification of the cells.


The next image is a Z-stack confocal image. In other words, multiple images of the cell were taken at different spacing in the Z-direction, to get slices throughout the cell. The Centre image shows the XY direction, or the cell parallel to the glass slide. The images below and beside this show the ZY and the ZX of the cell, or the perpendicular directions. What we can see using this technique is exactly where both the nanoparticles and the enzyme are within the cell.

Science in Images: Prussian Blue Staining

Rat mesenchymal stem cells, extracted from bone marrow, and labelled with Iron Oxide nanoparticles, before re-implantation. The image shows a section of the brain, stained with Eosin (pink) and then Prussian blue (blue/purple).


Prussian blue is a common histology stain; used to detect the presence of iron. The stain uses solutions of potassium ferrocyanide and hydrochloric acid to stain tissue. Iron deposits are then stained as blue or purple.