Archived News

Hi-tech Imaging May Help Improve Human Health

July 28, 2015

What's New Image

Ingrid Brust-Mascher uses a Leica Super High-Resolution Confocal Microscope in the Health Sciences District Advanced Imaging Facility

New cutting-edge imaging tools at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine are providing researchers with a whole new look at biological specimens to answer questions about health and disease—literally. Frances Shaffo, a pharmacology/toxicology Ph.D. student in Professor Pamela Lein’s lab, recently established an imaging technique that she hopes to successfully use in her thesis project that allows her to create a 3-D model of nerve structures in a whole rat lung. 

“Being able to see what’s happening in a complex structure (such as the brain or lung) as a whole rather than in slices is a huge benefit—it allows us to optically dissect a specimen without having to physically cut it,” Shaffo said. 

Shaffo, who received her undergraduate training in biochemistry and environmental science at Tufts University, is focused on looking at the effects of organophosphates, especially chlorpyrifos, on development and function of nerves in the lung. Organophosphates form the basis of many insecticides, herbicides, and nerve agents—listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as acutely toxic to bees, wildlife, and humans. 

After numerous epidemiological studies showed an increased risk of asthma to individuals exposed at higher rates to chlorpyrifos, the EPA banned the pesticide for use inside the home in 2001. (It was a common ingredient in roach spray.) But the pesticide is still widely used in agricultural settings. Through her studies, Shaffo aims to provide a better understanding of the risk of exposure and to establish contact limits for this chemical—especially for women of childbearing age or who may be pregnant, working in agricultural settings.

Specifically, Shaffo is using the CLARITY tissue clearing method in conjunction with the school’s new Leica 3D Super-Resolution STED (STimulated Emission Depletion) Confocal Microscope to create a 3-D model. This microscope (part of the school’s advanced imaging facility) enables researchers to view subcellular structures as small as 50 billionths of a meter (50 nanometers), allowing detailed visualization of cells, the structure of viruses and the interactions among individual proteins within cells.

“With 3-D imaging, we can see how nerve fibers branch, where they go and their distribution through entire tissues—which may be very different from one area to another,” Shaffo explained. “Eventually I hope to be able to use this technique to understand how exposure to this pesticide affects the development of nerve structures.” 

Shaffo’s studies are relevant to ongoing work in the UC Davis CounterACT Center of Excellence that is dedicated to identifying improved medical countermeasures for chemical threat agents that cause seizures in humans. The center is conducted as a collaborative effort of the School of Veterinary Medicine, the School of Medicine, the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, and the College of Engineering.

Center Director Pamela Lein said they are also using the advanced imaging tools to visualize nerve structure in a zebrafish model of organophosphate -induced seizures as part of the CounterACT research efforts. This work is being done by Suren Bandara, a postdoctoral researcher in Lein’s lab. Additionally, researchers are using this equipment to determine the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals on the patterning of nerve connections in developing zebrafish.  

“Ultimately, the reason we conduct this type of translational research is to impact public policy and hopefully improve human health,” Shaffo said.