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Inside the Lab Digital and computational pathology, Histology, Technology and innovation

Tissue Cartography

If you’ve ever been lost in a new location with your trusty smartphone to hand, then you know how useful a tool Google Maps is – the web mapping service provides an abundance of information on the world around us, and can quickly switch from an overview of the entire earth, to a detailed, panoramic view of a single street. But what if you could perform a comparably detailed navigation of a tissue or organ, zooming from gross to microscopic study with a simple click of your mouse? A team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, are doing just that, and are currently working to apply the technology to osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

“I’ve often compared the complex physiology of the human body to, for example, the Amazon rainforest. Previous imaging modalities could show us the whole hip, or the individual cells, but in order to understand the interactions between the health of a complex system, its cellular communities, and individual cells, we needed to be able to move seamlessly between them,” explains Melissa Knothe Tate, the Paul Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering, UNSW, who led the research.

The imaging method relies on rapid-throughput, multibeam scanning electron microscopy, which allows fast processing of tissue blocks at a high resolution, and can be used with specimens up to 10 cm in diameter (1). Originally developed for quality control in the semiconductor industry, the technology is now being teamed with Google algorithms in order to make the best use of the high volume of data it provides. Each processed tissue sample produces roughly a terabyte of data, and when Knothe and her team began creating their first “Google Map”, putting the information together became a two-million piece puzzle. “When I brought the relatively huge human samples to our histology technicians, they thought I had lost my mind,” she adds.

Figure 1. Normal osteocytes compared with early and advanced osteoporosis using the tissue mapping technique.

The work has shown that it is feasible to create a “Google Map”-style image of an organ or tissue, with a prototype map of an osteoarthritic human hip (Figure 1), which can visualize details on a nanometer scale (2). With its high speed and ability to allow the user to explore a tissue sample in precise detail, the technology could hold a great deal of potential for digital pathology.

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  1. U Knothe, et al., “Rapid throughput, seamless imaging of human hip joint tissue across length scales to elucidate emergency structure-function relationships”. Presented at the Orthopaedic Research Society Annual Meeting; March 2015; Las Vegas, Nevada, US. Poster #1121.
  2. University of South Wales, Prototype map, example available at
About the Author
Roisin McGuigan

I have an extensive academic background in the life sciences, having studied forensic biology and human medical genetics in my time at Strathclyde and Glasgow Universities. My research, data presentation and bioinformatics skills plus my ‘wet lab’ experience have been a superb grounding for my role as an Associate Editor at Texere Publishing. The job allows me to utilize my hard-learned academic skills and experience in my current position within an exciting and contemporary publishing company.

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