University launches first-of-its-kind equipment to transform imaging of cells, tissues and materials

14 Jan 2019 14:11:37.483

The University of Nottingham is the first university in the world to own and operate unique equipment which allows label-free chemical imaging of materials, cells and tissues, with the potential to transform research in these areas.

The new 3DOrbiSIMS is the first production instrument of its kind and will have applications in a multi-disciplinary range of research areas, including biomedical implants, drug delivery systems, developing strategies to tackle antimicrobial resistance, organic electronic devices and engineering applications. 

Click here for full story

Breaking new ground

Professor Morgan Alexander and Professor Paul Williams from the Schools of Pharmacy and Life Sciences have recently led the discovery of bacteria resistant materialsthat are now being trialled in catheters to reduce infection rates.

Professor Alexander explains why this new instrument is so important for the future of research breakthroughs like this: “This facility gives us the capability to identify biological molecules in samples from complex biological environments, such as the human body, without being restricted by our existing understanding. This is a very exciting prospect in areas where the knowledge of the fundamental processes underlying biological responses is still developing, such as in explaining why bacteria colonise certain plastics and not others. Equally it provides the opportunity to identify and locate known compounds such as drug molecules in biological samples like human cells, which is critical in the development of future generations of drug therapy. This capability has great application in both academic and industrially based research programmes; we are very excited about collaborating with colleagues from the UK and around the world.”

The 3D OrbiSIMS is a concept from the National Physical Laboratory, where the first prototype instrument is based. These two instruments put the UK in a very strong global position for molecular imaging to support academia and industry.

Planned projects using the 3DOrbiSIMS include; research into the fight against antimicrobial resistance where the insight provided can further the understanding of medical device colonisation and biofilm formation. Other projects include the localisation of nano therapeutics to support the development of intracellular therapeutic delivery of surface engineered nanoparticles and their identification in tissue such as skin. Projects within engineering will include the support of additive manufacturing, via detailed chemical analysis of complex 3D printed materials, as well the identification of complex organic deposits upon engine components to enable improved efficiency in the use of fossil fuels.

State-of-the-art 3D imaging

The 3DOrbiSIMS is a time of flight secondary ion mass spectrometer (ToF-SIMS) with unique state-of-the-art 3D imaging capability that achieves unprecedented mass resolution through the integration of a high specification OrbitrapTM mass spectrometer. The instrument is also capable of extremely high spatial resolution.

The facility is also complemented by high pressure freezing cryo-preparation facilities that enable biological samples to be maintained close to their original stateallowingthe native structure of hydrated samples such as stem cells and bacteria to be studied. The instrument allows label-free molecular characterisation, producing an uncompromisingly accurate portrayal of the true chemical 3D internal environment of a sample at high lateral (<100 nm) and depth (~3 nm) resolution. 

The £2.5m investment for this new facility was made with the support of an award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council(EPSRC).

From prototype to production 

The concept was created by Professor Ian Gilmore, at the National Physical Laboratory(NPL), who led the multidisciplinary team with experts in drug discovery at GlaxoSmithKline and the University of Nottingham. Leading mass spectrometry companies, ION-TOF GmbH and Thermo Fisher Scientific were also part of the team. They designed and integrated their technologies into a single platform in the development prototype installed at NPL. 

Professor Gilmore said: “Before the arrival of the 3DOrbiSIMS, ToF-SIMS, images were too often of molecules that could not be identified. In analogy to the Hubble space telescope, before the upgrade “clusters” of molecules of nearby mass, typical of biology, could not be resolved and this has frustrated scientific discovery for decades. The 3DOrbiSIMS allows these mass “clusters” to be fully resolved and identified, and like the upgraded Hubble space telescope, enables high-resolution views for discovery in the molecular world.”

The 3DOrbiSIMS will be situated in the University of Nottingham’s Nanoscale and Microscale Research Centre(nmRC), a world leading inter-disciplinary research centre for materials characterisation at the micro and nano-scale.

NanoPrime is an EPSRC - University of Nottingham funded access scheme with grants of up to £15k available for academia and industry to access the 3DOrbiSIMS and other state-of-the-art instrumentation and expertise within the nmRC for proof of concept and pump priming studies.

— Ends —

Our academics can now be interviewed for broadcast via our Media Hub, which offers a Globelynx fixed camera and ISDN line facilities at University Park campus. For further information please contact a member of the Communications team on +44 (0)115 951 5798, email or see the Globelynx website for how to register for this service.

For up to the minute media alerts, follow us on Twitter

Notes to editors: 

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our 44,000 students - Nottingham was named both Sports and International University of the Year in the 2019 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, was awarded gold in the TEF 2017 and features in the top 20 of all three major UK rankings. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Morgan Alexander and Dr David Scurr (Facility Manager), in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham on, 0115 9515119 or

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager (Faculty of Science)

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

Additional resources

No additional resources for this article

Media Relations - External Relations

The University of Nottingham
YANG Fujia Building
Jubilee Campus
Wollaton Road
Nottingham, NG8 1BB

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5798