Scientists are developing a fingernail-sized camera that can capture the movement of molecules within cells and have predicted it will pave the way for “revolutionary” new medical treatments.
With £1.9 million to fund their work over the next five years, Dr Robert Henderson, of Edinburgh University’s school of engineering, and Dr Colin Rickman, of Heriot-Watt University, are spearheading the development of the pioneering device, which they hope to have operating 12 months from now.
And in a contemporary echo of Fantastic Voyage – Richard Fleischer’s 1966 sci-fi thriller in which a submarine crew is shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a scientist’s bloodstream – the Edinburgh researchers say the tiny gadget could one day enter a human body as part of a diagnosis.
Dr Rickman, who will use the camera to study insulin secretion and how this can change in diabetes, said: “It’s a bit of a game-changer – you could have it on an endoscope, or for any other medical procedure where a camera is needed.”
The new device – which has the width of a human hair – will be built with around 262,000 light sensors. Although this is far fewer than a smartphone camera, each sensor will be attached to a mini-computer equipped to time the arrival of photons.
Dr Rickman said the ability to measure photon movement would open up the possibility of new scientific and medical breakthroughs.
“For the first time, this unique camera will allow us to examine in real time protein interactions in live cells,” he said. “Protein interactions are really important in pretty much every disease – from cancer to neuro-degeneration. They all involve changes in protein interaction.
“With this camera, we can look at how these change over time. Essentially, we can look at them in live cells – it means we could target these proteins and reverse the effect.”
Dr Henderson, who is leading the project, said the new camera would take digital imaging technology to “the next level”.
He said: “It will allow us to look at what goes on in living cells, which until now has eluded scientists.
“This device could be the key to understanding on a molecular level exactly how our cells function, and what happens when this goes wrong.”