Imaging facilities continue to aid scientific discoveries

22 June 2018

Jacqui Marshall in vivo imaging event

Francis Crick Institute scientists and staff from the Medical Research Foundation and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) have been celebrating the success of our new imaging facility, which has enabled scientists to take a multi-pronged approach to imaging health and disease inside living animals.

The in vivo imaging facility, which opened in January 2017, is supported by a £1.8million grant from the Foundation, made possible thanks to a donation from GSK. To recognise their generous support, our researchers hosted a tour of the facility, which was followed by an evening reception.

The vision of the in vivo imaging facility is to provide a unified approach to, and application of, molecular, functional and structural imaging in animals to further understand the mechanisms of disease and develop therapeutic interventions.

"Eighteen months ago we were taking images of asparagus, Lego, and Mars bars on the MRI equipment to check that everything was working properly before the scientists got underway with their experiments," said Bernard Siow, head of the MRI facility. "Now, it's being widely used by Crick scientists and their collaborators to make new research discoveries."

Bernard Siow In vivo imaging
Image: Bernard Siow, head of MRI at the Crick, giving a tour of the in vivo imaging facility. Copyright: Medical Research Foundation.

Over the past year and a half, scientists from across the institute have used the imaging equipment to help them answer important scientific questions. Their work is helping to understand why disease develops and to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as cancer, infections and neurodegenerative diseases.

The facility is equipped with SPECT/CT and PET/MRI systems, as well as a 9.4T preclinical MRI system. These powerful tools are capable of capturing high-resolution images inside living animals, enabling scientists to monitor health and disease over time, such as tumour progression.

The facility also contains optical imaging systems including IVIS Spectrum fluorescence/bioluminescence imagers, a Pearl NIR imager, an intra-vital microscope, and two dedicated small animal high-resolution ultrasound machines.

Having multiple types of imaging equipment in one space enables scientists to measure different things in a single animal within a short space of time. This is particularly useful when multiple techniques are required to see the bigger picture. For example, neuroscientists trying to work out which parts of the brain are stimulated by a set of electrodes can use X-ray CT imaging to show where exactly the electrodes are located in the brain, and MRI imaging to reveal the corresponding brain activity.

Scientists in the Blood Stem Cell Lab are using the 9.4T MRI scanner to see how leukaemia affects blood flow in the bone marrow of mice. They recently discovered that acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) - the most common acute leukaemia affecting adults - causes bone marrow to 'leak' blood, preventing chemotherapy from being delivered properly. They now want to find out if it's possible to diagnose and track AML based on blood vessel leakiness using non-invasive imaging.

diana Passaro leaky bone marrow image
Image: MRI scans of the femur bone of a mouse. Left column: anatomical image, right column: T1 map. Crick researchers use the T1 map, combined with other types of MRI scans, to understand where blood is being delivered, as well measuring the leakiness of blood vessels. Copyright: Francis Crick Institute.

Diana Passaro, a scientist working on the project said: "We're starting by imaging mice, but if our findings are promising, it could have direct implications for diagnostic and prognostic approaches in human patients. This, and other work at the Crick, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Foundation, the expertise of the imaging team, and the professionalism of the staff working in the biological research facility (BRF)."

Kathleen Mathers, head of the BRF during the in vivo imaging facility installation said: "Our multi-scale imaging programme creates an integrated link between processes at the genetic and cellular level, and their effects in the whole organism, in order to investigate the functional consequences of the disease process across a range of different scales and model organisms. We hope that Crick research will continue to benefit from these cutting-edge facilities available on-site."


Hero image: Crick scientists Jacqui Marshall (right) and Ana Gomes (left) at the event. Copyright: Medical Research Foundation.