Small focus, big scope for science’s biggest challenges
Using powerful microscopes and intense light to literally shine a spotlight on the most minute of living processes, researchers are pushing the boundaries of what we know about fertility, pain and heart health.
Two of the leading scientists behind these micro-explorations into light and life are Professor Andrew Greentree and Associate Professor Brant Gibson.
The pair are joint Chief Investigators with RMIT’s node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP), which brings together a unique combination of physicists, chemists and biologists.
Gibson says their work focuses on creating a new window into the body, allowing scientists to discover more about some of our biggest health challenges and understand the biological processes behind them.
“The first focus for us is on the spark of life – the processes of fertilisation from the first few seconds to days of life,” he says.
“Second, the origins of sensation and pain – how pain is understood, why different people respond differently, and the origin of chronic pain (which lies purely within the brain).
“Finally, there’s cardiovascular health – how do we know when fatty deposits are benign? When do they cause negative outcomes, like a heart attack?”
The research uses powerful equipment to literally shine a light on living processes.
Tools of the trade
To uncover these critical biological processes, the researchers are creating a range of new optical tools, such as nanoparticles, chemical assays, detection protocols and devices.
Investigating these processes more deeply means looking at objects and reactions that are extremely small, at the nanoscale level – which is where the powerful lasers and microscopes come in.
“When we look at the world around us, we see it at the macro scale and we develop an intuition about how materials behave,” Greentree says.
“But if we can better understand the nanoscale – which is about 100 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair – we can create technologies that exploit the new effects that occur there.”
With the emerging convergence of nanoscience and photonics, the researchers are harnessing the opportunity of using light to interrogate nanoscale domains and achieve unprecedented localised measurements.
“At RMIT we focus on optics,” Gibson says.
“We have advanced custom-made microscopes that we use for nanoparticle detection, and we’re also building new kinds of optical fibre endoscopes, so medical professionals can search even more deeply inside the body.
“Our theoretical team is working on new ways to detect and generate ultrasound with light, and developing new protocols for microscopy.”
To this end, RMIT’s long-established expertise in nanoscience and nanotechnology – the study and application of extremely small things – is feeding into key themes within the CNBP and already making breakthroughs.
“With a partner from the University of Adelaide, we have developed a new mobile phone microscope to be used for tracking sperm that can help diagnose male infertility,” Gibson says.
“We have also been performing new, non-invasive imaging of mammalian eggs to understand the biochemistry of the first days of life, which could ultimately lead to higher success rates for clinical IVF.”
Extending boundaries of knowledge: Associate Professor Brant Gibson and Professor Andrew Greentree.
At RMIT, the Centre’s pioneering work also involves undergraduate and postgraduate science students.
“We have students working as researchers and they are included in all aspects of the work – there are few things as satisfying as the joy of sharing knowledge,” Gibson says.
“We love it when the students understand new concepts, and love it even more when they can share with us what they have learnt.”
Such diversity in the research teams is welcomed by Greentree, as new perspectives are crucial to such a meeting of minds as the CNBP.
“We're all different – my specialisation is theoretical physics, especially quantum physics – but I love the unknown,” he says.
“To see something in a new way, to learn a new fact, to witness a new phenomenon, it's the ultimate exploration.
“These are the most exciting uncharted frontiers in the map of science, and we have the privilege to extend the boundaries.”
Greentree says the multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology is revolutionising science and involving students from different disciplines in the cutting edge of CNBP research is crucial preparation for future challenges.
“At RMIT, we understand that nanotechnology is critical in the 21st century,” he says.
“No other field of science has such potential to dramatically change the way we live, and that’s why nanotechnology is increasing in its importance; contributing greatly to the world economy and benefitting future generations.”
First published 20 September 2017.