Scope 45 - From the Director

22 July 2011

Seeing the Invisible

How do you study something you cannot see?

The basic materials that a scientist works with are very different to those of other professions.  Unlike engineers, artists or teachers, a scientist spends most of their time handling things that are invisible to the naked eye.  This is one of the challenges of research, so technology is constantly evolving to enable scientists to effectively ‘see into the unknown’.

If you have the opportunity to visit the Malaghan Institute, peer through the laboratory windows and you will observe some of our scientists carefully transferring droplets of what looks to be water from one tube to another.  Of course these droplets contain a lot more than simply water.  Some will contain thousands of dollars worth of antibodies, while others might hold a patient’s personalised cancer vaccine, however to the observer, they all look the same.

Microscopes were invented centuries ago for this very reason and are still used today to provide information on particular characteristics of biological materials, such as cells, that cannot be determined by eye.  However, microscopy is a time-consuming and labour-intensive method that has only limited capacity when it comes to addressing more complex questions such as “did the cancer vaccine stimulate an anti-tumour response?”, or “which cells are important for asthma?”. 

To answer these questions a scientist will turn to the extraordinary power of a rapidly developing technology called fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) or flow cytometry, of which the Malaghan Institute has the most state-of-the-art facility in New Zealand. 

In this issue of Scope we provide an overview of how this technology works and how it underpins our cancer and asthma research programmes.  This is only the tip of the iceberg though, and I feel very excited about the future application of flow cytometry in the clinical arena, where its ability to provide individualised cellular profiles for patients promises to revolutionise the way we treat diseases in the future.

Prof Graham Le Gros