Scientists can now make organs see-through

Scientists have succeeded in making bodies see through for the first time. And it does NOT look good. (If you have even the slightest suspicion that you might not want to see a photo of a transparent mouse, follow that instinct. Trust me.)

But freakish as it may seem, turning organs clear is a huge scientific breakthrough – one that has the potential to revolutionise medicine.

Until now, researchers’ attempts to get a look inside organs have all had the side effect of serious tissue damage, meaning there wasn’t much left to study. But a team from the California Institute of Technology have developed a new technique, which they’ve revealed in the latest issue of Cell. Using a mesh to support the tissues, they were able to keep adding an agent to the blood to dissolve the fatty lipids that make organs appear opaque.

It’s not a quick job: it took them three days to be able to see into the kidneys, hearts, lungs, and digestive system of rodents and two weeks for the entire body to become transparent. They’ve so far only succeeded in using the technique in euthanised mice and cancer cells in a lab, so they’re some way from being able to see through living human beings.

Of course, doctors have seen inside our bodies before, but only in sections, and mostly after the fact (in scans and X-rays), so they can’t actually see our organs in action and find out how they might be (mal)functioning.

If this method can, as the researchers hope, be adapted to be used in humans, it could have all kinds of medical applications, from being able to spot how far cancer has spread to understanding more about how diseases affect various organs, including the brain – which should make it possible to develop more effective treatments for neurological disorders and dementia.

The director of America’s National Institute of Mental Health Thomas Insel told the BBC, ‘This is probably one of the most important advances for doing neuroanatomy in decades.’

Image via University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley