Volume 44 | Number 1 | Spring 2014

In-Depth Exploration

Donors' Generosity Furthers Research

Spring 2014 Issue | By Emily Frandsen

Today, biology graduate student Matt Osborne can have data in minutes that a year ago would have taken him weeks to collect.

Osborne is working with ISU Biomedical Research Institute Director Shawn Bearden, Ph.D., who is studying how elevated levels of specific amino acids in the blood vessels can work within the brain to cause cognitive impairment associated with dementia. His research, combined with information from other dementia studies, could change the way the disease is treated in the early stages.

Using a transmission electron microscope, Osborne is able to measure blood vessels, and see information beyond the molecular level. Two years ago, the research wouldn't be possible at that level, Bearden says.

Healthy mouse brain, capillary (circle) about 3 micrometers in diameter. Image taken at 12,000x.

The microscope requires a camera to capture images of the specimens. Until generous donors stepped in last year, Bearden's team was working with an outdated camera that required film. To even begin to look at data, researchers had to capture an image, develop the film and then find out if it was usable. In a project like Bearden's, which requires hundreds of perfect images, the process of simply preparing the images to study took weeks. Today, it takes seconds.

"It was hard to tell if you even had it in focus," Bearden said. "It was so unwieldy that we just didn't do it."

Today, thanks to gifts from many alumni and friends of the University, the laboratory has a new high-tech digital camera, capable of instantly capturing images of specimens the size of a virus.

"We wouldn't be able to do this project without it," Osborne said.

Healthy mouse brain, zoomed in on capillary wall. Horseshoe shape is called a peg and socket contact between endothelial cells and pericytes. This structure is what Osborne's entire project is focused on studying. Image taken at 85,000x.

Ed Taylor spearheaded a nationwide effort for donors to bring state-of-the-art equipment to the University. The newly-established program is named the Ruby Colony Fund, in honor of Taylor's mother. It is a continuing method by which donors can support this and related cutting edge research at ISU.

Taylor, who passed away earlier this year, was a retired engineer who in an earlier interview said he was intrigued by the work they could do at the facility with the right equipment. Taylor was no stranger to science or academia — his father Albert Taylor was a professor of physical chemistry at ISU.

"They had a camera, but they couldn't even get the film anymore," he said. "They needed a new camera that could get down to the molecular and atomic level. I am a lot more aware of how closely the University is working with the rest of the world. It is not just theoretical. They're working on things they are ready to try out. They will eventually be able to do things to help people."

Healthy mouse brain, capillary about 4 micrometers in diameter. Image taken at 12,000x. Large black shape in the left side of the image is the nucleus of a pericyte.

Taylor set up a fund, offering a matching donation for all donations for the microscope camera. Together, he and 170 other donors worked together to raise $60,000 for the camera.

Along with Bearden and his team, many other faculty members and students across disciplines are using the microscope and camera. Researchers are studying viruses, extreme microbes and collecting data for numerous projects.

Biology doctoral student Jamie Mayo, who also works in Bearden's lab, said she is able to look at data more in-depth, and it has made a difference in her work.

"It allows me to look at things in such detail," she said. "I can answer questions better and be more critical because of the research I have been able to do using these resources."