Tiny tools help advance medical discoveries

To understand the progression of complex diseases such as cancer, scientists have had to tease out the interactions between cells at progressively finer scales - from the behaviour of a single tumour cell in the body on down to the activity of that cell's inner machinery.

To foster such discoveries, mechanical engineers at MIT are designing tools to image and analyse cellular dynamics at the micro- and nanoscale.

Such tools, including microfluidics, membrane technology and metamaterials, may help scientists better characterize and develop therapies for cancer and other complex diseases.

New medical discoveries depend on engineering advances in real-time, multifunctional imaging and quantitative analysis, says Nicholas Fang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

''What we've learned so far is more or less the architecture of cells, and the next layer is the dynamics of cells,'' says Fang, who is developing optical sensors to illuminate individual components within a cell. ''Cells operate like a city, or a metropolitan area: You have traffic, flow of information, and logistics of materials, and responses related to different events. Medicine requires new modes of seeing these events with better precision in time and space.''

Materials beyond nature
Fang is developing new imaging tools from metamaterials - materials engineered to exhibit properties not normally found in nature. Such materials may be designed as ''superlenses'' that bend and refract light to image extremely small objects.