OrganVision: Little organs MAGNIFIED!!

I have just joined the FETOpen RIA funded OrganVision project at UiT. Surrounded by the Norwegian sea, snow-covered hills, and northern lights, UiT enjoys a fantastic location in the heart of Tromsø, Norway. The island of Tromsø is no less than any Disney movie destination. Viewing outside during my daily bus commute to the University I sometimes wonder if I am on a vacation. But apart from the location, thanks to UiT having a vast pool of students and staff, I also often get to meet new people on the way. One of these days Suyog – a master student from India studying computer science at UiT was excited to know about our research. In this post I share a brief exchange between Suyog and I, discussing about our research on organoids in the OrganVision project.

Suyog: Can you tell me about your work on organoids?
Joy: Organoids are miniature organs that can be grown and maintained in a lab. Organoids are used as disease models to screen future drugs for therapy.
Suyog: Ah! That’s super interesting. How difficult is it to make or maintain them?

Joy:  Depends how we make them, but it can take anywhere between a couple of weeks to months.

Suyog: Woah! That sound like a lot of work. What mini organs are you brewing and are they living?
Joy: Yes, it takes some discipline and work. Thankfully we have experts in the team.  Florian Weinberger from UKE, Hamburg in Germany has been working with the pioneering group making mini hearts! This technology is now being used by Åsa-Birna Birgisdottir and her team who are making these mini hearts here at UiT. Yes, they are living, and they beat like our heart!  You can make organoids of other organ too like lungs, kidney and so on.

Suyog: Wow this all sounds like a cool sci-fi movie! But why can´t you do these studies on cells?
Joy: Our body works as a system of cells and tissues in a 3D environment. Unlike culturing cells, organoids can capture this 3D ambience that is closer to real-world body functions.

Suyog: Then are organoids superior to animal studies?

Joy: Yes and no. Yes because, organoids can be made from a patient´s cell and thus are better candidates to model human diseases and even be personalized for an individual. No because, organoids although have a 3D ambience lacks specialized systems like blood circulation, immune system and so on, thus diseases that need these systems cannot be fully understood by organoids.

Suyog: Cool! This will also save the use of animals in biology research too. But can you tell me why do you want to image these organoids? What exactly do you want to see?

Joy: So, these mini organs can be used to mimic diseases by adding some toxins, chemicals or exposing them to radiations. The organoids will respond to them and cause changes in their proteins. These protein structures are almost 1000 times smaller than a hair strand.

Suyog: That small? It must be challenging to image these tiny structures in the organoids then!

Joy: It is. As the organoids are in a 3D environment, we get a lot of information from everywhere in the organoid at the same time, and it is important to localize the information to identify from where it originates. It is a challenging task, and we are planning to make a suitable microscope for that.

Suyog: When you say localize the information, how is the information being carried from the organoids?
Joy: Good question. We usually fluorescently tag some proteins which can lights up when we excite them with lasers. But these labels can be poisonous to the living organoids and thus may not allow us to study them when fit and alive.  Therefore, we are trying to do this without using any labels using the organoids behavior when exposed to certain lighting setup.

Suyog: Wow! I am excited to know we do such cool stuff here at UiT! Talking about fluorescence, tonight´s weather forecast says that we have a high chance of catching the Northern lights!
Joy: Yes, fluorescence of the sky! Let´s hike up the hills tonight and start hunting for it!

-Biswajoy Ghosh (Joy)
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Physics and Technology

UiT the Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø.

Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Suyog Jadhav for giving permission to use our conversation for the blog post.