Olympus Virtual Microscope taking health sciences to the next level

1 Dec 2015 - 10:00

In 2014 the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences acquired a state of the art Olympus VS120 virtual microscopy system. The Photo: Researcher using Olympus Virtual Microscopeacquisition of this relatively rare equipment will not only enhance teaching and research in the department and assist pathologists at Groote Schuur, but also, through the virtual database, open the rich data resource housed at UCT up to the broader community.  According to technical officer in the department, Jurgen Geitner, the acquisition of the microscope and establishment of the database gives UCT a global competitive edge.

“There are not many of these machines in the world and only three in South Africa,” says Geitner. “One of the biggest challenges of the acquisition of the equipment was the IT component. It was not only a question of getting the microscope up and running, but also setting up the database and the network.”

It was here that the collaboration between clinical laboratory sciences and eResearch proved vital to the process. The eResearch team worked closely with the laboratories to set up the servers and the database to house the images produced by the microscope. The Olympus VS120 system features a slide loader that can process up to 100 slides at a time. The images processed by the microscope are of an exceptionally high resolution, which means the server has to handle large file sizes. A single image can be as big as seven gigabytes.

“Because of the requirements of the microscope, we needed a fast network and a very powerful server. Fortunately the eResearch team could step in to assist on the project,” says Geitner.

He adds that, thanks to the in-house IT support in the set-up and configuration of the Olympus server software, not only did the department save a lot of money on the costs of a server, which they no longer had to buy, but their help was also invaluable from a technical point of view.

Photo: Olympus Virtual Microscope“It would have been impossible for us to set this kind of thing up. We needed someone with inside knowledge of the UCT network. On projects of this size, it is impossible to work in silos: we need somebody who has an idea of the bigger picture.”

In addition to setting up the server software and database, the eResearch team also configured the system for various access scenarios, including departmental, student, conference and public access.

Virtual Microscopy for Teaching

The Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences holds an extraordinary collection of pathology specimens that have been accumulated over more than 80 years. The specimens provide a learning resource for health sciences students and, thanks to the Olympus VS120 microscope, the specimens are in the process of becoming available for viewing via a website. This digitised system for teaching will be a far cry from the current system where students rely on old and out-dated slide boxes. When it comes to teaching, one of the challenges with the slide boxes is to ensure that, in a class of around 200 undergraduate students, all the students are looking not only at the correct slide, but the correct region of the correct slide. Soon students will be able to access their samples online from any location with a reliable internet connection.

A Research Game Changer

For postdoctoral researcher Dr Collin Diedrich, the Olympus VS120 microscope has been a ‘lifesaver’. Diedrich’s research focuses on tissue inflammation, known as granulomas, in patients with a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis (TB) co-infection. The acquisition of the microscope changed the nature of Diedrich’s work. He went from manually taking the images himself to digitising 100 slides at a time with the Olympus, and letting the technology do the work for him.

A New Era for Diagnostics

The acquisition of the Olympus VS120 microscope also led to an important collaboration between Dr Michael Otto, anatomical pathologist at Groote Schuur and Dr Brian Benetar, clinical director of pathology at the Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust in Manchester. The aim of the collaboration is to validate whether or not the quality of the images taken by the Olympus VS120 are powerful enough to make an accurate diagnosis. Pathologists in Cape Town will look at the actual glass slides under a more traditional microscope, while the team in Manchester will use the digitised images from the Olympus to make a diagnosis.

“Remote and rural centres generally face high workloads with limited access to secondary specialist consultations. Use of a courier service to transport glass slides is not only time consuming but also expensive,” says Otto.

“If this study is successful in proving the digitised images offer the same diagnostic capability as traditional glass slides this could lead to better diagnostic accuracy, reduced turnaround times and more effective and cost saving consultation as digital images are rapidly transmitted.”

The Olympus Microscope is a prime example of innovative technology accelerating research to areas previously believed impossible. Without a specialist eResearch team embedded within the university the department of clinical laboratory sciences would have faced far greater challenges in getting the equipment up and running at maximum efficiency.

Researchers at UCT have so far only scraped the surface of the potential of this system. In the future, the Olympus VS120 is set to enhance and accelerate not only microscopy-related research and teaching, but also open access to the resources to allow for greater access to, and sharing of, research data generated by the Olympus VS120. 


Story by Natalie Simon

Images by Stephen Williams