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Medical hope from mini-microscopes

Cardiff University is one of three universities in Wales to have won a grant of £2 million to further pioneering work in the field of biotechnology.

Together with the University of Wales, Bangor, Cardiff’s School of Medicine is developing optical biochips - essentially microscopes as small as a single human cell.

The technology will be used to help make diagnoses of disease much faster and easier, without involving huge laboratories. Professor Paul Smith at Cardiff is in overall charge of the £2 million biochip project.

He said: "We can act in terms of diagnosing disease at the cellular level very quickly, potentially portable devices whether or not that device is in the general practicioner's surgery, at home or in the field.

According to Professor Smith, optical biochips may do for medical research what silicon chips have done for computers.

The work being done at the three Welsh institutions could spawn a significant biotech industry in Wales.

At the internationally renowned Department of Informatics in University College, Bangor, micro-engineering scientists who can make equipment smaller in size than the width of a hair have expertise that is vital to the Welsh biochip project. They are working on developing a micro-laboratory, which looks like a credit card with a metallic gold grid painted on to it.   They can guide molecules around tiny channels inside the grid and conduct experiments on them.  

This will become the platform for what is called optical biochips.

Dr Julian Burt from Bangor explained: "They are devices that combine liquid handling for biological and medical samples with optical parts such as mirrors and lenses to do a wide range of measurements on medical and biological samples."

At the moment, the equipment needed to see molecules can fill a whole room.

The challenge the Welsh team has is reducing it all to fit it on one of Bangor's micro-laboratories.

At Cardiff University's School of Physics and Astronomy, Dr Huw Summers uses a £0.5m electron microscope to make another tiny microscope inside it by directing a beam of electrons onto a crystal the size of a grain of sugar.

He said: "beams of electrons are used to shape the material to make it as small as possible - creating devices as small as a single human cell."

This tiny crystal will then be inserted into Bangor's little laboratories where they will act as microscopes.

The final piece of the jigsaw is at Cardiff University where expertise lies in detecting and reading light signals on an incredibly small scale.