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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 October 2006, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
University invents cutting-edge technology
By Mike McKimm
BBC NI investigative correspondent

The University of Ulster in Northern Ireland has come up with a world first in electron microscopy.

Researchers at the Coleraine campus have developed a unique microscope that uses ion guns to manipulate specimens right down to the very atoms and molecules.

The technology can be used to slice bits of a yogurt bacterium
It is part of the university's drive to become a world leader in the study of nanoparticle toxicology.

Nanoparticles are so small you can only see them with a very powerful microscope.

They can come from traffic fumes, household cleaners, even hair spray.

And scientists are increasingly worried what happens when they enter our body through our mouths or even penetrate our skin.

They are even searching individual cells to spot them.

Nanoparticle toxicology is the damage caused to humans by these tiny particles that can travel along the nervous system, just like a virus.

Using a unique microscope, scientists can cut away parts of cells to reveal the exact location they want to examine.

Then, by reassembling all the pictures in a computer, they can create an accurate 3D model of the cell or even individual DNA molecule.

This allows them to look for, and hopefully spot, the tiny foreign particles that should not be there.

George McKerr
George McKerr said the centre would become a "reference lab"

The nanoparticles are tiny groups of atoms or even a single molecule that could interfere with a process.

For example, they could cause faulty cell division or interfere with the development of critical complex molecules, just by being present.

George McKerr, director of the new Centre for Advanced Imagine at the university, is delighted with the results so far.

"This is the full realisation of four years work. Cells, virus particles and large molecules can be machined and manipulated.

"The centre at Coleraine will become a reference lab for this type of work throughout Europe."

The centre has already attracted interest from major European industrialists.

As industry comes under increasing pressure to account for the effects of its products and chemicals, it will need leading edge technology to help come up with the answers.

Professor Vyvyan Howard
Professor Vyvyan Howard said the centre wanted to be recognised throughout the world

But it is the effects caused by the minute nanoparticles that could become the main focus for the new centre.

Researchers have become increasingly convinced that nanoparticles could be the cause of ailments such as allergies or even cancers.

They want to know what happens when the tiny particles from vehicle exhausts or aerosols, for example, enter deep into our bodies.

Using this new Focused Ion Beam Microscope, scientists can explore any part of a cell they want, looking for individual nanoparticles.

Nanoparticle toxicology is set to become one of the major research areas and already Europe has set aside 1.4bn euro to fund the research.

"We intend to be recognised as one of the world centres of excellence for investigating Nanoparticle toxicology, " says Professor Vyvyan Howard, head of the bio- imaging research group.

"Every single product brought out containing free nanoparticles will have to undergo a toxicological safety assessment"

Such is the rush by industry to meet the new requirement that more than half of the 1.3m bill for the new microscope has already been paid in research grants to the centre.

Mike McKimm reports on the new technology

Virus used to make nanoparticles
19 Mar 06 |  Science/Nature
Gold nanoparticles to trap toxins
04 Apr 06 |  Technology

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