For UCSF researcher Tyson Kim, the ability to peer into the brains of living mice meant building the equivalent of a better mousetrap. It is a double photon microscope, unlike any other in the world.
"This microscope is kind of a tweaked sports car. Basically, we threw together a system that gives us a few years' head start," said Kim.
Kim, who's still a graduate student, teamed with engineers combining high end components available commercially, and designing others. From scratch, they created a version of a photon microscope that's able to see deeper into living brain tissue.
"The blood vessels are labeled in red, so this is how the animal is positioned like a patient in surgery," said Kim.
The mice are anesthetized, but unharmed by the photon beams. And since researchers can monitor changes in the vascular system without sacrificing the animals, they're able to see the effect of various drugs or altered genes on blood vessel growth.
"This microscope allows us to do is detect the process in real time in with living tissue," said said Rong Wang, Ph.D. from UCSF Pacific Vascular Research Lab.
Wang directs the laboratory for accelerated vascular research at UCSF.
She says learning to block blood vessel growth might someday give them the ability to kill off a cancerous tumor, or perhaps do the opposite, and bring a fresh blood supply to damaged tissue.
"If we can get it to grow into such dying tissue, it would give us hope to treat heart disease," said Wang.
It is research that's now progressing much faster than they could have imagined a few years ago, and in part, because of a powerful tool created by a marriage of engineering and biology.
"I'm sure this is the direction everyone will go in, but we're just sitting at the leading edge for the next few years," said Kim.
The cost of a commercial system with some of the same parts could easily cost from $500,000 to $700,000. Though they couldn't release the exact cost of this microscope, they say the final price tag was a fraction of that, about $200,000.