Microscopic new insights into liver disease

29 Oct 2013

Australia’s first in situ sectioning electron microscope is helping researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) gain insights into diabetes and liver disease.

The equipment enables researchers at the Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis (CMM) at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) to see three-dimensional images of liver cell structures.

As researchers and students become skilled in adopting the three-dimensional technology, a knowledge hub is being created at UQ and interstate researchers are coming for training.

Researchers have published the first paper using the CMM equipment in Current Biology, examining the internal structure of – and interaction between – liver cells.

They found molecules which store fat as energy, called lipids, could be accommodated in some liver cells to protect the entire liver cell population against potential damage.

The research, involving CMM Deputy Director and Institute for Molecular Bioscience lab head Prof Rob Parton, postdoctoral fellow Dr Nicholas Ariotti and University of Barcelona’s Dr Albert Pol, helped understand the importance of cell variation.

“Cells are not all the same,” Prof Parton said. “If some cells carry too many lipids, they die. But some cells can help the population by taking up large amounts of lipids.

“They can even pass lipids to other cells to help them survive. It’s all about helping the whole population of cells survive.”

The mechanism causing cells to differ greatly from one another in their storage ability, known as heterogeneity, is particularly noticeable in the liver.

“Lipid storage varies from cell to cell in the liver. Our research suggests this is a protective social organisation to reduce damage to the liver.

“The equipment has played a vital part in enabling us to see this social organisation in three-dimensional images and gain these insights.”

CMM Director Prof John Drennan said the equipment had been used widely, in examining everything from blood cells to the structure of fish eyes, pearls and sponges.

It also has potential to examine degradation of paints used for everything from aircraft to 19th century oil paintings, he said.

“The equipment is so precise it could be used to cut along a strand of hair,” Prof Drennan said.

The equipment, worth more than $1 million, was installed with infrastructure funding from UQ and support from AIBN.

A microtome knife in the microscope, made of diamond, cuts material every 60 nanometres and a scan is taken of each exposed surface.

This means the equipment could make 666 slices to cut through the width of an average human hair with a thickness of 40,000 nanometres.

The scans are then collated and a three-dimensional image built up.