PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Researchers at Stanford have invented a new way to look at muscles in the human body and they're hoping that it could help lead to break throughs in some of the most debilitating diseases that doctors face.
Cruise into the gym, and it's easy to see muscles at work. But seeing how they really work on the inside is a different story, and critical if you're going to unravel diseases that devastate the body. "So we know from this type of technology that you can identify all different types of diseases, neuromuscular, and even potentially cancers," said bioengineer Gabriel Sanchez, Ph.D.
At their lab at Stanford, Sanchez and Professor Mark Schnitzer, Ph.D., set out to miniaturize a special kind of microscope, that can peer into human muscles in real time. It works by beaming ultrafast pulses infra-red light through a needle like probe. That light changes color as it reflects off the muscle fiber. A computer can interpret the difference in minute detail. "And we're able to see their elemental contractions. We're able to see single motor units generating force," said Schnitzer.
And by imaging those tiny units of muscle activity, researchers can see if the movement is healthy or abnormal and perhaps measure the progression of diseases like ALS, or muscular dystrophy.
"A lot of these diseases have resisted developments of cures and even treatments. There's many reasons for that, but one of them is certainly that it's very difficult to quantify how far along the patient is or whether they're responding to a drug," said Sanchez.
They say the portable unit replaces room size microscopes that were never built to examine living tissue. They believe researchers could soon use their version to track the progress of new therapies and drug treatments in ways never possible before. "So I think of this as maybe the next stage of medical imaging. That would be my dream," said Sanchez.
One note, Sanchez and Schnitzer have now spun off the new microscope into a private company called Zebra Medical Technologies in which they have a financial interest. They are working to bring it to market commercially.
Written and produced by Tim Didion.