Researchers have created what they believe is the first complete transparent organ — a rat heart. The new discovery, which represents a new twist on nanotechnology, may help pave the way for achieving other new developments. For example, team member Lyu Ho, an optical engineer at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, explained that such a device could also lead to revolutionary improvements in robotic hand operations and other kinds of surgical procedures.
Looking at a rat heart in the naked eye, by contrast, “it’s not a very attractive spot,” Dr. Lyu said. “So this [transparent organ] will help us with cranial surgeries, echocardiograms, echocardiograms with images.”
In a research paper, published in this week’s issue of Nature Communications, the team of engineers at Princeton University and Rutgers described how they’ve achieved the first three-dimensional viewing of human organs that appears completely transparent.
The aim was to develop an optical microscope that could go behind the organ’s muscle and blood vessels in order to generate images using a new kind of light.
They succeeded by developing the new strain of oxygenated fluid and wiring. This glasswork material is effective in scattering light but produces a kind of optical “give,” which allows it to almost disappear, the researchers say.
To make it clear, they wrapped the new normal-glowing fluid with the lentil-like material. Using a high-speed camera, the team constructed a complete image of a rat heart for which they don’t yet have a name.
Professor Ronald Mendelsohn, the Rothman Institute Founding Director who was not involved in the research, said he had long believed there was great promise for transparent organs.
“There is no reason to limit this technology for anything that is commonplace,” he said in an interview. “[Transparent organs] could also be used in surgical procedures, such as on a plastic or face transplant, or in general medical imaging.”
The improvements it could bring, added Professor Mendelsohn, could include more frequent and accurate bone growth, more accurate lookups for degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and even full, living 3D representation of the human brain.
With this approach, “you could literally see living drugs,” he said.
Professor Mendelsohn also told the Associated Press he saw the same promise for larger organs. But there are still many hurdles to overcome, he said. For one, scientists need to figure out how to get oxygenated fluid underneath organs so that they are transparent.
“The next step is to develop one for a human,” he said.
It would also have to figure out how to get blood flows beneath organs to show that they are transparent, he added.
Dr. Lyu, who is president of the Society for Information Dissemination, underscored these issues. “There are very technical, intellectual challenges with getting the organs,” she said. “They’re challenging enough for a robot.”
The consortium was one of the winners of a Nanoscale Challenge initiated by the National Science Foundation. A so-called light scattering structure provided by Professor Kim Moussa at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory allowed the researchers to reach their goal.
Prof. Moussa has created a new series of devices, called optical supersoles, that solve some of the current challenges of surface scattering.
“What happened with optical supersoles is they helped us achieve a new level of resolution,” Lyu said. “No nanoshattering quantum leap, but the resolution doubled.”
In 2006, Dr. Lyu and Prof. Moussa collaborated with researchers at Cornell University on the development of a tube-like medical device made of photonic particles called nanoparticles. This device, seen here, uses a novel technology to create an optical display of cell protein.