If you believe big things come in small packages, a nondescript lab in the research wing of University of South Alabama Mitchell Cancer Institute is like Christmas morning.
The Cellular and Biomolecular Imaging Facility, located behind two sets of double doors, has eight microscopes, a few monitors, laptops, a couple of rolling office chairs and blackened windows. It is closed-in and unspectacular compared with the other labs in the building, which are open, with bright windows and long countertops where scientists peer through eyepieces, collect samples or click on keyboards.
But look more closely into the Cellular and Biomolecular Imaging lab and you will see about $2.5 million in equipment used by as many as 30 different researchers. Two of those machines are what are called super-resolution microscopes, and they are the only ones you’ll find in Alabama, says Joel Andrews, lab manager.
One of these is the Nikon Ti-E A1rsi spectral confocal microscope with N-STORM (Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy) Super-Resolution Imaging. That means it is equipped with six laser lines and can detect 32 colors.
It has the ability to magnify an object more than 1, 000 times, and being confocal means the machine keeps everything in the image in focus.
The other super-resolution machine is also a Nikon, but with two lasers.
This MCI lab is one of only four places in the country that has both super-resolution options, says Carol McPhail, assistant director of marketing and communications for the USA Mitchell Cancer Institute.
“The equipment we have is fairly rare, ” McPhail says. “We’re running with the big dogs when it comes to imaging.”
MCI is about to purchase another confocal microscope for the lab, though it will not be super resolution. The new $340, 000 imaging machine will be purchased partly with funds from a Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research $250, 000 grant, with the rest coming from MCI matching funds.
These machines allow researchers to see parts of the cell unseen previously, using fluorescent dye to follow specific molecules of interest.
And the magnification is enormous.
Look at Andrews’ 30-inch monitor. The image filling the screen is the edge of a cancer cell. Andrews points about a yard or more to the side of the screen and says, “That’s where the nucleus would be. And the rest of the cell beyond that.”
Understanding how cancer cells work helps target the disease.
There are two broad approaches to what takes place in his lab, Andrews says.
First, what is cancer? How is it different than healthy tissue? And second, how do you exploit the differences to target cancer?
“This instrument lets us ask questions about DNA repair that we would not be able to answer otherwise, ” Andrews says.
Managing the lab requires not only expertise with high-tech microscopes but also a background in physics and computers and a working knowledge of cancer biology.
A Mobile native, Andrews developed an intense interest in science as a student at the Alabama School of Math and Science. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology and German from Earlham College, a Ph.D. in basic medical science from the University of South Alabama and has completed a postdoctoral fellowship at MCI.
One of Andrews’ goals for the lab is to standardize approaches across MCI. “If you want to draw conclusions from images, certain things have to be in place, ” he says. “An important part of my job is to ensure that the data is used correctly.”
The average researcher may not know the best way to use the imaging machines to approach their question. “We can help guide them, ” he says.
Andrews sees his role as improving on existing approaches.
“To make as much of this quantitative as possible as opposed to qualitative. Turn it into numbers, ” he says. “Part of my job is to make sure things are done rigorously. It’s having the right controls, doing the right analysis. I love the liberty to focus on that kind of stuff.”
As the technology develops, so does the accuracy.
What does that mean in practical terms? Organizing data that used to take 20 minutes, now takes milliseconds.
If the tools aren’t there for Andrews, no problem. He teaches himself and creates his own software programs for whatever the research requires.
“It’s intensely rewarding to work on something and have it work correctly — then hand it off to a researcher to see how it is applied, ” Andrews says.
Having a community of trust is important. Research can be both a collaborative and competitive enterprise.
“Here we are much more collaborative, ” Andrews says. “That can’t be found everywhere. It (research) can be cut throat. But it’s not that way at MCI and USA.”
MCI is built in such a way that researchers can walk just a few steps to collaborate with a peer. The open floor plan ensures communication and joint efforts, not just between researchers, but also with the clinic. One wall of the lab overlooks the waiting area and has a clear view of the other side of MCI — the clinical side where patients fight their battles with cancer. It’s a constant reminder of what the research means to individuals.
The lab also has a close working relationship with Nikon, which uses it as a showroom for potential customers.
And then there is the community — donors helped purchase those two super-resolution machines, for example, through funds raised at Celebrate Hope, a major MCI fundraiser. This year’s event, sponsored by Wind Creek, will be Nov. 17 at MCI.
And the offshoot of having equipment like that found in the Cellular and Biomolecular Imaging Facility means it raises the prestige of the facility, attracting more researchers to come and take advantage of the equipment.
“It has been used successfully as a recruiting tool, ” Andrews says. “It builds momentum. Helps us get more researchers — high quality researchers, and helps us get more grants.”
And that research can be an economic tool, launching spin-off companies in the biotech field — a boon to MCI and the community.
Tammy Leytham and Mike Kittrell are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Leytham is based in Fairhope and Kittrell in Mobile.
Text By TAMMY LEYTHAM // photo by mike kittrell