To do so they must first decode exactly how cells or cell groups communicate with each other and react to surrounding biomolecules. But it is difficult to observe complex cellular interactions, as they would take place in the human body, without disturbing the process or missing a lot of what goes on.

To get around the problem, Georgia Tech researchers have built a nanoscale Scanning Mass Spectrometry (SMS) probe. It captures both the biochemical makeup and topography of complex biological objects, in situ. The SMS probe gently pulls biomolecules at a specific point on the cell-tissue surface. Ions produced by the action go to a mass spectrometer for analysis.

The probe dynamically images the cellular surface and maps cellular activity and communication, potentially in real time. In scanning mode, it could create movies of cell biochemical activity with high spatial and temporal resolution. The SMS probe readily integrates with atomic force microscopes and other scanning probes, letting it image biochemical activity as well as changes in cell-tissue topology.

How the SMS probe works.

How the SMS probe works.