SCIENTISTS in Southampton have developed a revolutionary technique which could transform treatments of killer diseases.

The researchers at the University of Southampton are using special gold probes to allow them to study cells in microscopic detail.

The technology could be used to identify the correct cells needed to advance stem cell treatments to tackle conditions such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Stem cell therapy is in its infancy, but has the potential to change the way cancer and other life-threatening diseases are treated, by replacing damaged or diseased cells with healthy ones.

One of the key limitations of stem cell therapy is identifying the right cells to use for different therapies.

The use of the gold nanoprobes, developed by Dr Sumeet Mahajan and his group at the Institute for Life Sciences, now allow experts to view these cells in much greater detail.

Dr Mahajan, senior chemistry lecturer in Life Science Interface, said: “Stem cells could hold the key to tackling many diseases.

“They develop into all the various kinds of cells needed in the body – blood, nerves and organs – but it is almost impossible to tell them apart during their initial development without complex techniques, even with the most advanced microscopes.

“Up to now, scientists have used intrusive fluorescent markers to tag molecules and track each cell, a process which can render them useless for therapeutic purposes anyway.

“By using a technique discovered at Southampton in the 1970s, known as Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), we have been able to look at adult stem cells on a molecular scale to distinguish one from another, meaning we can still use the cells for therapeutic purposes.”

The team who discovered SERS in the 1970s found that by roughening a metal surface upon which they had placed molecules to be examined, they could increase the signal by which they could detect these molecules, by a million times.

This allowed them to detect molecules in far smaller quantities than ever before.

SERS has been used around the world and across industries, but this new research marks the first time it has been used in the field of cell therapeutics.

Dr Mahajan’s research could mean that stem cell and other cell-based therapies could be advanced much further than the current most common uses, such as bone marrow transplants.