Swiss scientists revolutionize fluorescence microscopy

The glass slides used to prepare samples for looking at under a microscope have hardly changed in the nearly 200 years since their invention. Breaking with tradition, two scientists from EPFL’s Institute of Microengineering in Neuchâtel have developed a new type of microscope slide that enables early-stage diagnosis of some types of cancer.

A microscope
Copyright 2020 EPFL Alain Herzog

Used in millions of labs around the world for microscopic observations, glass slides have the major drawback of reducing usable light by 70%, making many compounds hard or impossible to detect. At EPFL’s Institute of Microengineering in Neuchâtel, materials chemist Raphaël Barbey and optical engineer Nicolas Descharmes have developed a new type of glass slide that can boost the amount of light in fluorescence microscopy by a factor of up to 25. This means that – in an ideal case – these revolutionary slides would be able to detect the presence of one molecule, where 25 molecules would be needed on conventional slides.

Unique optical properties

The new slides have a layered structure that is capable of controlling the electromagnetic environment surrounding the samples. When light is shined on the fluorophores in a sample, they emit more light than they would on a conventional slide, and all of that light is directed towards the microscope’s detector. This results in clearer, faster, better images.

Enabling early-stage diagnosis

Descharmes and Barbey’s invention could enable the early-stage diagnosis of some types of cancer and autoimmune diseases, as well as the easier reading and archiving of histopathology slides. The duo is currently working on industrializing the production of their patented technology, in collaboration with CSEM, the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology.

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