If Google Maps can store and crunch prodigious amounts of data every time someone zooms from Earth View to Street View, why can’t scientists use similar computational techniques when they study microscopic images of the human body? That way, scientists could zoom from tissue blocks to individual cells. Such imaging capabilities, in combination with staining techniques, could even let scientists keep an eye on molecular traffic. The ability to jump from tissue to tissue while changing scale with ease could enable scientists to relate disease processes with disruptions in molecular transport and communications.

“Google Maps for the body” isn’t just an idea. It’s actually in development. For example, a team of academic and industry scientists has been applying imaging capabilities originally developed for high-throughput quality control in the semiconductor industry to the life sciences. The scientists represent the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Carl Zeiss Microscopy. The imaging capabilities, which were once used to can silicon wafers for defects, have been adapted for investigations of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

The results were at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Orthopedic Research Society in Las Vegas. On March 20, USNW professor Melissa Knothe Tate, Ph.D., presented a paper entitled, “Rapid Throughput, Seamless Imaging of Human Hip Joint Tissue across Length Scales to Elucidate Emergent Structure-Function Relationships.”

“A current barrier to understanding emergent properties of tissues is the paucity of rapid throughput imaging technologies that allow for seamless bridging of structure-function relationships across length scales,” the paper’s abstract read. “This area of unmet need provided the impetus for [the application to] life sciences applications leading-edge imaging capabilities originally developed for high-throughput quality control in semiconductor industry.”

“Using the mSEM prototype, in concert with laser confocal scanning microscopy, we successfully imaged joint tissue blocks containing complex tissue composites across length scales (10–2–10–9 m) and in a rapid throughput manner,” the abstract continued. “Selective etching of the sample reveals further details of intrinsic organic and inorganic tissue structure.”

Using Google algorithms, the scientists were able to zoom in and out from the scale of the whole joint down to the cellular level “just as you would with Google Maps,” said Dr. Knothe Tate, an engineer and expert in cell biology and regenerative medicine. She added that doing so could reduce to “a matter of weeks analyses that once took 25 years to complete.”

Dr. Knothe Tate’s team is also using cutting-edge microtome and MRI technology to examine how movement and weight bearing affects the movement of molecules within joints, exploring the relationship between blood, bone, lymphatics, and muscle.

Numerous studies have explored molecular transport within specific tissues, but there has been little research on exchange between different kinds of tissue such as cartilage and bone.

Dr. Knothe Tate has already demonstrated a link between molecular transport through blood, muscle and bone, and disease status in osteoarthritic guinea pigs. Like humans, guinea pigs develop osteoarthritis as they age. The condition is increasingly believed to be the result of a breakdown in cellular communication.

Understanding the molecular signaling and traffic between tissues could unlock a range of treatments, including physical therapies and preventative exercise routines, explained Dr. Knothe Tate: “For the first time we have the ability to go from the whole body down to how the cells are getting their nutrition and how this is all connected. This could open the door to as yet unknown new therapies and preventions.”

Dr. Knothe Tate is the first to use the system in humans. She has forged a pioneering partnership with the US-based Cleveland Clinic, Brown and Stanford Universities, as well as Zeiss and Google to help crunch terabytes of data gathered from human hip studies.

Similar research is underway at Harvard University and Heidelberg in Germany to map neural pathways and connections in the brains of mice. As for osteoarthritis, the UNSW study concluded, “[Examining] structure seamlessly across length scales and in cohort with other imaging modes lends itself to the elucidation of emergent structure-function relationships key to joint physiology in health and disease, and as a function of natural aging processes.”