Three young University of Newcastle biologists have hand-built a state-of-the-art laser microscope at HMRI that delivers clear three-dimensional cellular images with unparalleled speed and precision.

Where commercial versions cost up to $1 million, colleagues Dr Jamie Flynn, Antony Martin and Will Palmer assembled their unique device for just $70,000 using plans, parts and technical advice sourced from the internet and collaborators around the world.

Known as the “CLARITY light-sheet”, it was built as a communal resource for all HMRI-aligned researchers and will potentially revolutionise research across a myriad of disease areas, with studies for cancer, asthma, stroke, gastroenterology and reproduction already planned.

“A traditional microscope looks at a thin veneer that has been sliced off the original sample. With the CLARITY light-sheet we can now see the same microscopic level of detail in the whole 3D sample, plus we can rotate it which is impossible on standard microscopes,” Antony Martin said.

“It’s also much faster, which saves money. It was taking hours to get one image using the old technology – this system takes a few minutes and doesn’t harm the sample.”

Dr Flynn learnt of the technology during a lecture at Stanford University, California, and then joined an international community of scientists sharing open-source design information.

“The blueprints came from a group in Dresden, Germany, but we doubled everything, including the number of lasers, and added design elements to make it more user-friendly and functional,” Dr Flynn explained.

“It’s a customised, one-of-a-kind unit … and being modular, it can be upgraded as required. We tailor the microscope around the sample instead of manipulating the sample to fit inside a standard microscope.”