HP Labs

HP Labs pioneers new approach to creating 3D images of human cells

By Simon Firth, HP Labs Correspondent — May 17, 2018

HP Labs researchers are exploring a new approach to 3D imaging at the cellular level that generates 3D models of a live cell’s interior as well as its surface – what’s known as volumetric imaging. The technique promises to significantly increase the speed at which such imaging takes place while at the same time substantially reducing its cost.

Volumetric 3D cell imaging helps biologists in a number of ways, says Yang Lei, a Senior Research Scientist in HP’s Print Adjacencies and 3D Lab. “A 3D view of a cell gives you better insight into cellular structures and processes,” Lei says. “Two internal structures might appear overlapping in a 2D study, for example, but actually be fairly far apart in 3D space.”

Conventional methods of high-quality 3D cell modeling are slow and expensive. The cell first needs to be made rigid in some way and then precisely illuminated to reveal its interior in a sequence of very thin 2D layers. The layers are then scanned and reassembled into a digital 3D reproduction. This requires expensive equipment and a highly experienced technician, severely limiting the number of cells that can be investigated.

“The research literature tells us that there’s something different about viewing a physical 3D model versus seeing it on a screen. That alternative way of seeing might offer biologists insights they’d otherwise not gain.”

 

Yang Lei, Senior Research Scientist, HP Labs

 Sample of 3D printed cell model.

Photo courtesy of HP Labs

Sample of 3D printed cell model.

The new technique works by combining 2D images of a transparent cell recorded by an optical microscope attached to video camera as the cell spins in space. A set of customized geometric scanning algorithms are then used to automatically construct a 3D model of both its exterior membrane and interior structure – all without damaging the cell or requiring great technical expertise on the part of the investigator.

At present, the HP system reproduces a cell and its interior elements as regular-shaped objects. The project’s next phase aims to add the capacity to map and reproduce irregular – and thus more accurate – shapes, and to automatically identify a cell’s various constituent parts.

In addition to creating digital 3D reproductions of the cells, Lei and colleagues are printing 3D cell models with large format HP 3D printers. “The research literature tells us that there’s something different about viewing a physical 3D model versus seeing it on a screen,” Lei explains. “That alternative way of seeing might offer biologists insights they’d otherwise not gain.”

The modeling research grew out of work by HP colleagues who were using an electrically charged microfluidics chip to separate cancer cells from other kinds of cells. They noticed that the separation process also caused the cancer cells to spin. That raised the possibility of exploiting that spinning motion in some way to understand the cells better.

The modeling project that resulted is very much exploratory, notes Lei. “We don’t have preconceived ideas about what results we will get, but we are interested in following up opportunities as they arise,” she says.

To the extent that 3D imaging can add to our understanding of a cancer cells’ properties, it might in turn help improve the lab’s investigations into cell separation, which could yield new kinds of cancer diagnostics.

But it might also be of wider value in helping us understand the geometry of any kind of cell – and the dynamic processes taking place within cells – says Jerry Liu, Senior Research Manager at HP Labs.  

“There are many areas of life science research that would benefit from a quick and inexpensive method to explore a cell’s interior structures and reveal how these structures change over time,” Liu suggests. “We’re excited to see where this might go.”