New microscope to revolutionise disease research

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and UNSW have launched a multimillion-dollar cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) machine that will give researchers unprecedented insights into cardiovascular disease.

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Professor Joachim Frank (Nobel Laureate, Columbia University), Professor Richard Tilley (Director of Electron Microscope Unit at UNSW), Professor Robert Graham (Executive Director, Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute), and Professor Nicholas Fisk (Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), UNSW Sydney) at the launch of the cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) machine. Photo: William Lao

One of the world’s most powerful microscopes for imaging atomic-sized biological molecules in 3D is giving Sydney scientists unprecedented insights into cardiovascular disease, HIV and Alzheimer’s.

The 240,000-times magnification cryo-Electron Microscopy (cryo-EM) machine is fitted with the next generation of highly sensitive cameras that allow researchers to image samples frozen at liquid ethane temperatures with never-before-seen clarity.

The multimillion-dollar unit, which is a first for Sydney, has been purchased by the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and installed in the Electron Microscope Unit at UNSW Sydney.

Weighing close to a tonne, the microscope had to be placed on a separated concrete slab to be isolated from vibrations and shielded from electromagnetic interference.

Head of Structural Biology at the Victor Chang Institute Dr Alastair Stewart said investing in the cryo-EM was “building for the future” of structural biology.

“Having this new piece of equipment is extremely exciting,” Dr Stewart said. “Ultimately it will allow us to make even more advances in cardiovascular research, putting NSW at the forefront of world-class discoveries.”

Dr Stewart said the microscope would give scientists an atomic-level understanding of how cells divide and produce new cells, which is critical to the future development of antibiotics to fight superbugs that can cause heart disease.

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Nicholas Fisk said this partnership between the university and the Victor Chang Institute was an important step in servicing the growing demand for cryo-dedicated electron microscopy.

“This groundbreaking new microscope will allow researchers insight into how viruses replicate, how cardiac arrhythmias appear and how diseases such as Alzheimer’s develop,” Professor Fisk said.

“Cryo-EM is revolutionising the field of structural biology, and will allow our researchers to diagnose and analyse diseases of the future.”

Nobel Laureate Professor Joachim Frank joined scientists from UNSW and the Victor Chang Institute to open the cryo-EM and to talk about how the technology is revolutionising research.

Professor Frank shared the 2017 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering  this new and more powerful method of capturing three-dimensional images of biological molecules in atomic detail.

With an increasing number of structural biologists wanting to use cryo-electron microscopy, the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute is planning for the Thermo Fisher Talos Arctica microscope to be available for cardiovascular researchers state-wide.