Visionary technology: Lensless microscopy generates game-changing imaging tool

Dr. Alan Fine, founder of Alentic Microscience Inc. and Professor at Dalhousie University

Dalhousie University neuroscientist Alan Fine has developed a rugged, pocket-sized device that combines high resolution imaging with lab-on-a-chip diagnostics to enable rapid, more accurate analysis of samples. 

A professor of physiology and biophysics and biomedical engineering, Dr. Fine has studied optical imaging for most of his career. His newest device was inspired by his pioneering work in lensless microscopy, an optical imaging technique that avoids the blurring caused by light diffraction that affects even the most powerful lens-based microscopes.

Lensless microscopy can be used to look deep inside human tissue and is particularly suited to studying living cells. It has become an essential tool for Dr. Fine, whose research focuses on the cellular dynamics of how the brain processes and stores information.

Simple to use, a fraction of the size and costing orders of magnitude less than traditional diagnostic equipment, Dr. Fine’s lensless device is a potential game-changer in both clinical and industrial applications. The technology is now being refined and tested by Alentic Microscience Inc., a startup company founded by Dr. Fine and his research team.

But even game-changers can’t succeed without speed to market, and the path to market can be bumpy. Dr. Fine’s technology hit one of those bumps early in prototype development. However, members of his research team in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering knew that CMC Microsystems could help.

“We were starting to turn the idea into hardware and came up with some issues that we couldn’t address by ourselves, so it was natural to turn to CMC,” Dr. Fine says. “CMC staff helped us identify suitable means for connecting key ASIC component chips to their circuit boards. They also advised us on wire bonding processes and helped us find a company to do the work at advantageous rates.”

The team had additional concerns about the technology’s unique encapsulation requirements. “CMC advised us and helped us get a pilot run done. They found a commercial partner who did that for us, and it turned out to be very useful. It allowed us to validate the concept and move on to the next phase of construction. We were able to produce working prototypes, which was very, very helpful.”

A further hurdle was access to the right equipment. “Sometimes you need expensive test equipment, but only need it a short time and there’s no one on campus to provide it,” Dr. Fine says. “God bless CMC, which has such apparatus available through its equipment loan program. We were able to borrow the tools we needed at a very competitive rate.”

Often speed to market comes down to avoiding wrong turns, and CMC helped Alentic find that short, direct path, Dr. Fine says. “They gave us very knowledgeable advice on where to go, whom to ask. A couple of times we had intermittent issues, and it was very helpful having that voice on the phone, that expert knowledge, that sounding board. It saved us from going down blind alleys.”

Bumps and blind alleys behind them, Dr. Fine’s group is now using working laboratory prototoypes of their product to obtain validating data, and to see how their device works compared to others on the market. They expect to have alpha prototypes in the field later this year.

The innovative technology is being licensed to one company for use in particle analysis, and other biomedical and industrial applications continue to be developed by Alentic.

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