Development of a multi-channel Oblique Plane Microscopy system for cardiac cell physiology measurements

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Dept of Physics


Fluorescence microscopy is an extension of optical microscopy that has become a standard tool for biologists who label their specimens with fluorescent molecules to report the locations of specific proteins or to study cellular processes, e.g. to image the local calcium concentration in cells. Many microscopy applications demand optically sectioned imaging, which provides an image of only a single thin (~1 micron) slice through the sample. Optical sectioning improves image contrast by reducing the 'blur' from out-of-focus planes that is evident in conventional microscopy and provides the ability to produce 3D images from stacks of 2D optically sectioned images. Normally, optically sectioned imaging is implemented using expensive laser scanning confocal microscope systems (typically >£150k), which can be considered as a 'gold standard'. While these microscopes provide high resolution 3D images, they typically require 10's of seconds to acquire a 3D fluorescence intensity image. Also, when imaging at higher speeds, the illumination used in confocal microscopes can cause light induced damage (photodamage) to biological samples. One recently developed alternative to confocal microscopy is selective plane illumination microscopy (SPIM), which provides rapid optically sectioned imaging, very low exposure of the sample to illumination light, and which is therefore particularly advantageous when imaging live biological specimens. However, a major disadvantage of SPIM is that it cannot be implemented on the standard fluorescence microscopes that are used widely in biomedical research without significant modification of the method used to mount the sample. This project will develop a new optically sectioning microscope technology invented by Dr Chris Dunsby called Oblique Plane Microscopy (OPM, patent filed July 2008). OPM is conceptually similar to SPIM but it can be implemented on standard fluorescence microscopes and applied to image samples prepared on standard micoscope slides, tissue culture dishes or multiwell plates. As with SPIM, the image acquisition rate of OPM is only limited by the speed of the CCD camera used and OPM subjects the specimen to a minimal light exposure. To date, OPM has been successfully demonstrated for high-speed optically sectioned imaging of calcium waves in single live isolated cardiac myocytes at 500 frames per second and these images offer an exceptional view of calcium dynamics. However, these successful initial experiments immediately highlight a clear gap in the capability of the existing system: that it is not possible to image multiple cellular parameters simultaneously and that only one excitation wavelength is available. Therefore, the primary goal of this project is to extend the existing OPM system to enable multiple fluorescent probes to be studied simultaneously through the addition of laser excitation sources at new wavelengths and the addition of multiple detection channels that can image at different wavelengths using state of the art and extremely high speed camera technology. Significantly, the improved OPM system will be able to directly study multiple cellular parameters, e.g. the intracellular sites of calcium release will be correlated with the organization and structure of the cell membrane during cell contraction - in both 2 and 3 spatial dimensions - for the first time on a rapid timescale. While the focus of this proposal is to apply the improved OPM system to imaging cardiac cell dynamics, it will also be applicable to a number of other important imaging challenges in biology, including high-speed 3D imaging in cardiac tissue slices and for monitoring the diffusion and clustering of proteins on the cell membrane in 2D on the millisecond timescale.

Technical Summary

This project will improve and extend a novel optically sectioning fluorescence microscopy technique called oblique plane microscopy (OPM). The proposed modifications are essential to allow OPM to be used for cutting-edge biological research, and will be tailored specifically to the demands of studying dynamic events in cardiac myocytes. Two state-of-the-art high speed scientific CMOS cameras will be added to the OPM system to allow high speed imaging in two spectral channels simultaneously, which is essential if two fluorescent probes are to be studied and correlated, or if quantitative ratiometric imaging of e.g. [Ca2+] is to be achieved. Multichannel imaging and ratiometric imaging will greatly enhance the potential of OPM to produce novel biological results. The improved OPM system will offer simultaneous two-channel time-lapse 2D imaging with up to 528x512 pixels at 400 fps, or at up to 144x128 pixels at 1600 fps, which will offer an unprecedented insight into cardiac cell dynamics on timescales previously restricted to 1D line-scanning confocal microscopy. When combined with the ability of OPM to rapidly scan the observation plane through the sample without the need to move either the sample or the primary microscope objective, then the modified OPM system will also be able to image two fluorescent probes at up to 144x128x56 voxels at 30 volumes per second, allowing fast events to be followed in 3D in real time. In addition to the new detector technology, new excitation sources at 457 nm and 515 nm are essential to allow a range of different fluorescent probes to be used and significant modifications to the existing illumination system are required in order for multiple excitation wavelengths to be optimally employed. In summary, the proposed improvements to the OPM method will enable important sub-cellular mechanisms occurring during contractile events in cardiac myocytes to be studied quantitatively at high speed and in 3D for the first time.

Planned Impact

This proposal is an essential step towards the development and commercialisation of a new, widely enabling, imaging technology for research and drug discovery that will benefit UK science in a competitive and strategically significant area and will also result in the interdisciplinary training of a postdoctoral researcher with a physical science background in biomedical applications of imaging. OPM is implemented as 'bolt-on' unit that can be added to existing microscope systems, therefore lowering the cost of ownership compared to confocal microscopes and, more importantly, providing reduced photobleaching and phototoxicity for 3D imaging. Because OPM can be implemented on a standard fluorescence microscope and be applied to standard preparations of biological cells or organisms, it is directly applicable to sample preparation techniques currently used in biological laboratories, unlike the technique of selective plane illumination microscopy (SPIM). As a result, OPM will find applications in multiwell plate assays, which are currently used in high content drug screening by the pharmaceutical industry, and will lead to new high-speed 3D fluorescence screening methods. This would continue the current trend in drug discovery towards High Content Analysis and would also be applicable to higher-throughput biology experiments. In the longer term, there are potential applications of OPM in the field of cytometry, in either a flow or imaging configuration. These applications will be best realized if OPM can be commercialised as a new microscope or microscope attachment. As a result, this research will benefit companies manufacturing microscope equipment. Any exploitation of the research will benefit the UK economy via the patent application filed through Imperial Innovations and the preferred route for commercialization would be a licensing agreement with an established microscope manufacturer. Andor Technology has expressed significant interest in this technology and has written a strong letter of support for this application. However, the attractiveness of this technology to industry will be much greater once biological results are obtained using OPM, which is the key goal of this proposal. Such data could support a subsequent collaborative development programme, e.g. with Andor, that could be funded by a BBSRC Industrial Partnership Award or the Technology Strategy Board. Cardiac failure is an important public health problem with increasing prevalence. Independent of aetiology, the natural history of cardiac failure follows similar patterns. There are limited treatment options and a gradual decline in heart function occurs with a 5 year survival of only 50% once symptoms develop. The most important cause of mortality is sudden cardiac death, with 50% of heart failure patients dying suddenly. Ventricular tachyarrhythmias such as ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation account for the majority (60-80%) of these. With colleagues, KM has shown recently that in failing hearts Ca regulation is impaired and this occurs in parallel with ultrastructural changes. The impaired cellular Ca homeostasis can underlie the formation of cellular Ca waves which propagate slowly through the cells and result in depolarisations that may, in turn, trigger arrhythmias. Therefore there is a close relationship between cell structure, Ca homeostasis and arrythmogenicity. The novel approach to imaging detailed here will allow an understanding of the important sub-cellular mechanisms and a visualisation of these in 3D. Research directed at the cellular events will allow a more logical approach to the use of therapies. In the longer term OPM can benefit a wide range of different areas in biology which will impact basic biological research in a diverse range of areas, including studies of cell-signalling, immunology and embryology.
Description This project exceeded its original objectives in developing a novel optical microscopy technology called oblique plane microscopy (OPM), which aims to overcome some of the limitations of confocal microscopy. Significant advances in the OPM hardware were achieved, which included the design and implementation of an optical system providing multiple fluorescence excitation wavelengths allowing a much wide range of fluorophores to be excited and also allowing multiple fluorophores to be excited simultaneously. In addition, two new high-speed scientific CMOS cameras were added to the system, enabling two different fluorophores chosen to emit at different wavelengths to be imaged simultaneously. The use of two spectral channels has enabled the use of ratiometric fluorescent sensors that allow quantitative measurements of physiological parameters, e.g. voltage. Also, a further optical beam-path was added to the system to enable a conventional transmitted light 'bright-field' image to be obtained of the specimen that is acquired simultaneously with the fluorescence images, providing biologists with a direct visualisation of the morphology and condition of the sample in real time.

A significant amount of effort was required to develop the necessary acquisition software for controlling and synchronising all of the system components and also to allow the user to see the specimen in real time in 3D for the first time. The final system can now image two different fluorophores simultaneously at high speeds in 2D (>600 frames per second) and also in 3D (up to 25 volumes per second). The system therefore provides new opportunities to biomedical scientists to image dynamic biological specimens in more dimensions and at higher rates than before.

In addition to the development of the instrument hardware, a significant amount of software development was carried out to allow data to be processed in a reasonable timescale. This included software allowing rapid calcium spark events imaged at high-speed with OPM in 2D to be automatically detected and quantified, which was tested against existing 1D spark detection software to validate its performance. Dedicated software was also produced for automatically converting raw 3D OPM data into three perpendicular views of the 3D dataset, enabling the user to apply all the necessary processing in a single step.

Finally, extensive use of the OPM system was made to record calcium spark activity in cardiac cells isolated from control hearts and those with cardiac disease stemming from a heart attack. The cells were imaged in both 2D and 3D and multiple terabytes of image data was acquired. The software developed during the project is currently being used to analyse this data, which will be written up for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. This is the first time calcium sparks from control and diseased hearts have been recorded and analysed in two dimensions.
Exploitation Route One anticipated application of OPM is in the field of high throughput and/or high content 3D imaging platforms based on multiwell plate arrays. OPM provides very high speed 3D imaging and could therefore extend existing plate-reader technology - which is widespread in the pharmaceutical industry - providing opportunities for screening the effects of candidate drug-like compounds on cells, engineered tissues and small organisms. Given the greatly reduced importance of autofocusing for 3D imaging, the rate of 3D imaging of a multiwell plate could even exceed that of current 2D imaging systems. 3D imaging could provide detailed readouts on cell proliferation in 3D tissue matrices or on cellular or sub-cellular process in small organisms that cannot be quantified with current 2D plate-reader imaging systems. The results of this research are being exploited through a patent application on the invention of oblique plane microscopy (OPM) that was filed in 2008. During the project, this IP was licenced successfully through Imperial Innovations to a commercial company (details confidential).

In addition to commercial exploitation, the instrument developed during this research will also be exploited through existing and new collaborations with researchers in the biomedical sciences. The unique capabilities of OPM allow biological specimens to be studied with unprecedented temporal resolution in both 2D and 3D, and this will provide new opportunities to study and quantify dynamic biological processes. We have already demonstrated the application of OPM to the study of isolated cardiac cells and live zebra fish hearts, and future applications include the study of live nematodes, e.g. c. elegans, fly embryos and engineered tissues.
Sectors Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Other
Description The research carried out during this grant led to the successful licensing of OPM related intellectual property to Leica Microsystems. This license is managed by Imperial Innovations, who are responsible for technology transfer at Imperial College London.
Sector Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Other
Impact Types Economic
Description EPSRC, Imperial College London Impact Acceleration Account, Pathways to Impact
Amount £76,896 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 12/2015 
End 03/2017
Description Novel optical approaches to understanding the microscopic origins of calcium waves and the mechanisms underlying their arrythmogenic properties
Amount £283,307 (GBP)
Funding ID NH/16/1/32447 
Organisation British Heart Foundation (BHF) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 04/2017 
End 03/2020
Description Collaboration with NHLI on Oblique Plane Microscopy 
Organisation Imperial College London (ICL)
Department National Heart & Lung Institute (NHLI)
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We developed a novel light-sheet based microscopy techinque called Oblique Plane Microscopy (OPM)
Collaborator Contribution OPM was applied to quantifying calcium dynamics in cardiomyocytes with collaborators at the NHLI.
Impact This collaboration resulted in two funded research projects: EP/H03238X/1 and BB/I023801/1
Start Year 2010
Title Licensing of IP 
Description IP associated with the invention of Oblique Plane Microscopy was licenced to a commercial company. 
IP Reference  
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted
Licensed Yes
Impact First live-cell 3-D time-lapse imaging of calcium wave origins in cardiomyocytes.
Title Multi-channel Oblique Plane Microscopy system for cardiac cell physiology measurements 
Description The existing prototype Oblique Plane Microscopy system was completely rebuilt and optimised for high-speed measurements of cardiac cell physiology. 
Type Of Technology New/Improved Technique/Technology 
Impact No actual Impacts realised to date 
Description Light sheet microscopy for high content 3-D imaging of 3-D tissue cultures in a 96-well plate format 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Oral presentation at SLAS, Washington, 2017
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description SMi conference on 3D Cell Culture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact This is a commercially organised conference attended mainly by people working in the pharmaceutical industry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description The Oblique Plane Microscope Plate-Reader 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact STEM for Britain - a poster competition held at the Houses of Parliament for early career researchers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017