Imaging technologies play key part in virus research: Finland has cutting-edge expertise

2 Jul 2020

Scientists and researchers are hard at work on solutions to overcome the COVID-19 disease and to manage the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This requires ready access to good research infrastructures: tools and equipment, data networks and databases, and open access research materials and services that facilitate research and promote research collaboration.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that even in exceptional circumstances, it is possible to mount an effective response – provided that competent staff and the necessary international and national preparedness are in place. The foundation for this lies in the long-term development of research infrastructures. Indeed, research infrastructures funded by the Academy of Finland are crucial to the science community ’s efforts to understand the characteristics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the effects of the epidemic.

How have these research infrastructures been used during the corona pandemic, and how will they be used in different fields of science and research as we move forward? We are publishing a series of short pieces to shed light on these questions.

Imaging technologies play key part in virus research: Finland has cutting-edge expertise

Euro-BioImaging ERIC is a pan-European distributed research infrastructure for biological and biomedical imaging headquartered in Turku, Finland. As well as hosting its statutory seat, Turku has one of the infrastructure’s most widely known service centres, the Advanced Light Microscopy Node.

Imaging using laser and electron microscopy techniques and other modern, advanced methods has a key part to play in virus research. One use of these imaging technologies is to analyse and understand the operation of viruses and to search for drugs that can help combat viruses.

The most important imaging services with respect to the COVID-19 disease are related to researching virus replication and the course of the disease. Viruses are very much at the centre of public concern and discussion right now, but professor John Eriksson says they have not always been a hot topic for research. Eriksson is currently acting executive director of the Euro-BioImaging organisation and also director of Turku Bioscience.

“There are still many gaps in basic biosciences research related to viruses, and funding for this line of work is probably quite hard to come by. However, cell and molecular biology and biochemistry have an absolutely critical role in resolving virus-related problems. Life is cells, and the operation of cells determines the future of the whole world,” Eriksson says.

He hopes that the response to the coronavirus pandemic will bring greater public exposure to the importance and impact of biosciences innovations.

“It’s good to bear in mind that high-quality international research infrastructures that provide medical imaging services, for example, are also central to the management of the pandemic. Research infrastructures can provide important diagnostic tools for clinical care decision-making. The principal technique used in the assessment of pulmonary damage, for instance, is computer-aided x-ray tomography.”

Different imaging methods also allow for detailed real-time observation of cell communication and the reactions and reorganisation of individual cells. This is central to investigating the cause-and-effect mechanisms involved in the COVID-19 disease and the progress of the damage it causes.

Euro-BioImaging nodes and associated units are currently running several research projects concerned with the coronavirus pandemic. The methods used in these projects include light and electron microscopy techniques. At the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), for instance, work is underway using AI-aided image analysis to measure immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And at the Euro-BioImaging Israel node, scientists have developed an automatic microscopy method for confirming positive coronavirus tests and for minimising the chance of false negative sample results. Euro-BioImaging also has a database platform that can be used to examine virus images obtained by electron microscopy and to link them to other clinical results.

All Euro-BioImaging online services around the world are maintained by the coordinating hub in Finland. “During the pandemic we’ve made great progress in developing our digital techniques which among other things allow service users to virtually sit down with a research technician to analyse their sample and give instructions as to which specific part of the cell or tissue they want to look at,” Eriksson explains.

“It’s important to note that studying COVID-19 disease and the coronavirus is an international challenge and that all countries in the world belong to the same research front,” he points out.

Read more: High-level research infrastructures support COVID-19 research

More information

In addition to the research infrastructures introduced here, there are a number of other national and international research infrastructures that provide services for COVID-19 research. One useful source of further information is the ESFRI website.

The Academy of Finland provides funding for the acquisition and establishment of nationally and internationally significant research infrastructures that promote high-quality scientific research and for strengthening and expanding existing services.

Read more: Research infrastructures as collaborative platforms call 2020

  • Merja Särkioja, Senior Science Adviser, firstname.lastname(at), tel. + 358 295 335 111


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