A new type of microscope, capable of illuminating living cell structures in clear detail, could provide insight into autoimmune diseases and lead to new treatment options.

Researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus believe this new tool— a custom Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscope—could set the stage for future treatment discoveries and visualize antibodies that cause the rare autoimmune disorder neuromyelitis optica, which can result in paralysis and blindness.

The researchers used the microscope to actually see the clusters of antibodies atop astrocytes—the brain cell target of the autoimmune response in the disease.

“By applying this novel approach we can see firsthand how these antibodies work,” the study's lead author, John Soltys, a current student in the Medical Scientist Training Program at CU Anschutz, said in a statement. “We are looking at the initiation of autoimmune injury in this disease.”

Dr. Jeffrey Bennett, Ph.D., the senior author of the study and the associate director of Translational Research at the Center for NeuroScience at CU Anschutz, explained that the microscope allows researchers to view the early stages of various diseases as they form.

“We discovered that we could see the natural clustering of antibodies on the surface of target cells,” Bennett said in a statement. “This could potentially correspond with their ability to damage the cells.

“We know that once antibody binds to the surface of the astrocyte, we are witnessing the first steps in the disease process,” he added.

According to Bennett, the ability to see the antibodies on the brain cells offers researchers an opportunity to develop targeted therapies that do not suppress the body’s immune system like some current treatments for the disease do.

The STED microscope—which was built by CU Anschutz physicist Stephanie Meyer, Ph.D.—uses lasers to achieve a higher level of precision and clarity.

Lower resolution microscopes are blurry because of the diffraction of light. However, the lasers illuminate a smaller area to acquire a higher resolution image than traditional microscopes. The STED microscope can also highlight entire living cells at extremely high resolution, unlike electron microscopes.

“This would have been impossible to see with any kind of normal microscope,” professor Diego Restrepo, Ph.D., director of the Center for NeuroScience and study co-author, said in a statement. “We are inviting other scientists with research projects on campus to use the STED microscope.”

The study was published in Biophysical Journal.