Optical imaging is one of the tools used by biomedical researchers to examine cell samples at subcellular and molecular level. Over the last 15 years new technologies have made it possible for scientists to conduct their analysis in ever greater detail. However, such super resolution comes at a price. Imaging speeds can be very slow and the process can also damage the cell samples.
Recognising this as a problem in need of a solution UCD physics professor Dominic Zerulla, founder of PEARLabs, began looking for an answer using the science of plasmonics (light bound to a metal surface) to create a different type of light source for microscopes that would overcome both drawbacks. He has found it.
“Our patented Super Resolution Imaging technology is not just solving a problem, it is breaking a physical limit which was originally thought to be unbreakable – the diffraction limit of light,” says Zerulla who is principal investigator of the UCD Plasmonics and Ultra-fast NanoOptics group and has six patented inventions and more than 20 years’ experience in surface science, electronics and nano optics/plasmonics.
“Being able to do this strongly improves our ability to understand biomedical processes at the nanoscale while our technology’s unique combination of disruptive features overcomes the current difficulties of low speed and cell destruction. We can image structures with the resolution down to 20 nanometres.”
PEAR (plasmonically electronic addressable super-resolution) is a UCD spinout company established with the backing of the college’s Nova innovation hub. It is supported on the research side by seven PhD students and its proprietary photonic sensor chip will be of major interest to the international research community, universities, large hospitals and big pharma.
“The invention is the culmination of two decades of research and it is one of the most highly resolving imaging methods in existence,” Prof Zerulla says. “The IP is all in the chip which can produce live images with greatly improved spatial resolution in real time/video rate without being toxic to the sample. This allows for long-term super resolution imaging of ‘living’ samples which in turn will enable a deeper understanding of biological processes and by extension the development of new therapies for diseases. Additionally, it is exposing the sample to much lower levels of energy, thereby preventing radiation damage and making it the ideal tool to understand processes, such as important viral infection pathways, cancer proliferation and Alzheimer’s.”
PEARLabs will commercialise its technology in a number of ways. Initially it will partner with microscopy manufacturers, as its chip can be easily integrated into their standard microscopy systems. The chip will also be developed as a stand-alone product with multiple applications in areas such as high resolution medical diagnostics. The third route to market will be a consumer medtech product which incorporates the chip in a wearable device that could offer point-of-care diagnostics, rapid testing and pre-screening.
So, the company has manufactured two generations of its prototypes and is in negotiations with potential industry partners regarding volume production of the chip. PEARLabs has been supported by Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the European Union with combined funding of €1.2 million, most of which went into the research. The company is looking to raise €1 million immediately with a further round of €4.5 million to follow. Zerulla expects the company's first product to be market ready by the end of this year.
“Super resolution imaging is a growing area because of its ability to provide new insights into biomedical science,” he says. “The global market for the technology is expected to be around $4.5 billion by 2027. This is being driven by trends towards live in-vivo cell imaging and strong funding for linking molecular and cellular function with disease.”