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Room with a View: Powerful Microscopes Help Determine Targets for Therapeutics

April 29, 2015 Print

The Microscopy Core Facility, on the ground floor of McLean’s Mailman Research Center, houses some of the most sophisticated magnifying instruments available. Their capabilities astound: the transmission electron microscope (TEM), for example, can magnify a spot on a rodent brain slice up to 300,000 times with impeccable resolution, revealing even the infinitesimal junctions—the synapses—that electrical impulses cross in traveling from one neuron to another.

Jason Han, PhD
Jason J. Han, PhD, director of the Microscopy Core Facility, refines an image on the facility’s laser scanning confocal microscope

“These instruments are critical for basic neuroscience researchers who are investigating how disease alters cellular structure and the concentration levels of certain proteins in the brain,” said Microscopy Core Facility Director Jason J. Han, PhD, pointing to the impressive machines in the room: the TEM, a laser scanning confocal microscope (LSCM), and a fluorescence activated cell sorter (FACS). “Understanding these microscopic changes is a starting point for developing treatments to address psychiatric illnesses.”

While the TEM uses a beam of electrons to probe a sample, the LSCM, an “optical” microscope, uses light from a laser. “It can yield stunning multicolor images of cells and tissues in 3-D,” added Han. The TEM, in contrast, has far greater magnifying power than an optical microscope and enables researchers to observe much finer biological details. The FACS—unique in a microscopy facility—is not a microscope but a “cell sorter”: an instrument that purifies a mixture of biological cells and sorts them into containers by type. McLean scientists use the FACS to develop therapies using stem cells. They culture, or grow, the purified stem cells, watching them multiply, and then transplant them into the brains of research animals to regenerate tissue destroyed by neurodegenerative disease.

Han offers novel capabilities to the Microscopy Core. He not only provides users with training and technical support; he also builds custom microscopes to users’ specifications, programs instruments to aid researchers in data collection, and writes computer programs for customized data analysis.

“Jason is a very talented and creative engineer,” said Sabina Berretta, MD, director of McLean’s Translational Neuroscience Laboratory and chair of the Microscopy Core Facility. “He is able to prototype custom-made instruments in collaboration with other investigators, an important and unique ability that I expect will gradually develop to be an important component of the facility.”

Since coming to McLean in 2013, Han has helped transform the Microscopy Core into what it is today. “We have expanded our range of services significantly beyond those typically offered at a core facility,” said Han. “With the caliber of research under way at McLean, we look forward to further growing our level of expertise.”