A few years ago I met with Adam de la Zerda, PhD, who was then a very new assistant professor in structural biology. Most young faculty members launch their labs with a project that is likely to work.
At the time de la Zerda told me about his dream of being able to see cells and tissues inside the living body. If he could do that, he could potentially use that technique to monitor tumors in the skin, colon or esophagus and see if they shrink with treatment. It could also be a tool for diagnosing forms of blindness that result when blood vessels grow inappropriately in the eye.
de la Zerda said that many people told him his dream was unlikely to work, but he has now published the first demonstration of the technique. Getting to this point took many long hours by graduate students Elliot SoRelle and Orly Liba, who developed the miniature gold nanorods that light up the cells and tissues, and created algorithms for picking them out in images.
In my story about the work, I describe the nanorods like this:
Nanorods are analogous to organ pipes, said graduate student Elliott SoRelle, because longer pipes vibrate at lower frequencies, creating a deep, low sound. Likewise, longer nanorods vibrate at lower frequencies, or wavelengths, of light. Those vibrations scatter the light, which the microscope detects.
If all the other tissues are vibrating in a white noise of higher frequencies, longer nanorods would stand out like low organ notes amidst a room of babble.
de la Zerda and his students say that they are now working on ways of directing the nanorods to seek out particular cells or molecules and on creating nanorods that vibrate at different wavelengths.
Previously: The "sky's the limit" for young Stanford structural biologist and Stanford structural biologist named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 rising stars
Image of blood vessels in the ear of a mouse from the de la Zerda lab