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A new insight into the immune system

11 August 2014

Image above: A fluorescently stained section of intestine cut 20µm thick (or 0.002 centimetres).  On the left, an image captured with a wide-field fluorescence microscope (identical to existing technology at the Malaghan Institute). On right is the same slide imaged using a confocal microscope. This clarity brings a new precision to our research.

A stunning new microscope made possible by our Hawke’s Bay supporters

Biomedical innovation makes its greatest impact when research skills, collaboration, technology, and people are brought together. This is where philanthropy plays a powerful and transformative role.

Individual donations collectively have a huge impact. A small donation can help us purchase a petri dish – a key element of our research.

In 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming made a chance discovery from an already discarded, contaminated petri dish. The mould that had contaminated the experiment turned out to contain a powerful antibiotic, penicillin. Over a decade later, penicillin became the miracle drug for the 20th century.

Fast forward to today, and the petri dish remains a key tool for Alfonso Schmidt, a Research Assistant within our Cell Technology Team. Alfonso is at the cutting edge of our advanced technology such as our new confocal microscope.

This fantastic new tool was made possible by the support of our Hawke’s Bay Friends and a generous foundation. The confocal microscope is already bringing a new level of precision to our research.

We still use the humble petri dish for our confocal microscope. The petri dish helps us to incubate cells and view a complete biological process using the new confocal microscope. Because the cells are still alive, for the first time at the Institute we can see a process occurring in real time. Professor Mike Berridge is already using this new capability to better understand how cells are able to transfer mitochondrial information, which has implications for our cancer research.

In addition to helping us “see” living cancer cells, we are learning how to construct three-dimensional models from the obtained images. In cancer, cells accumulate genetic mutations believed to impart a competitive advantage over normal cells in surrounding tissue, helping the disease to take hold. We are already witnessing stunning images of mutant cancer cells mingling amongst normal cells within living tissue. Very few people in the world have seen this vista of cancer before and it is a game changing tool in helping our scientists better understand how cancer spreads.

This new, powerful tool and the humble petri dish will help advance our immunology research and we will share outcomes with you in future editions of Scope. As Alfonso says of the incubator for our confocal microscope, “you might see a box, but what happens inside that box is the magical part.”


Bringing immune cells into focus

Our new confocal microscope will benefit all of our research teams, including helping our Gut Inflammation Team us understand the dynamic interplay between immune responses and the microbiota in the gut.  We can now visualise with superior accuracy the tight junctions of the epithelial cells, which are the gatekeepers of the gut tissue. These cells create a physical barrier between the contents of the gut and the tissue. It is important that we can understand changes in this barrier function, as it is likely the initiator of chronic inflammatory diseases of the gut.

With this new technology we can quantify the cells involved in the immune response, but also understand their location and potential interaction with other immune cells. This powerful new tool will become a key platform for our research programmes.


 This article features in the August 2014 issue of our Scope newsletter (Issue 54).  Download the full newsletter here - 506 KB (PDF)