A flash of light identifies tumours: the outcome of project VIBRA

An innovative light microscopy technique reveals the cellular mechanisms, which underpin various diseases


Project VIBRA – Very fast Imaging by Broadband coherent Raman – has just drawn to a close at Politecnico di Milano. Conducted for five years with funds from the European Research Council (ERC), the research study has developed a revolutionary light microscope for biological and biomedical sectors.

The identification of tumours and of other diseases is currently based mostly on the subjective opinion of a pathologist, who visually inspects the tissue with a microscope. Our light microscope, based on coherent Raman spectroscopy, is able to rapidly reveal the chemical content of a biological specimen in order to identify diseased cells in human bioptic material. This precise, reliable and non-invasive instrument is designed to guide the surgeon’s work in real time

Dario Polli, Professor of Physics and Scientific Manager of the project explains this.

The study has used sophisticated laser techniques, which generate ultra-short light pulses with a duration of millionths of millionths of a second. It is one of the shortest events ever created by man. This technique allows to record the “digital fingerprint” of molecules, which constitute matter. Indeed, every molecule can be recognised by the “sound” emitted when it vibrates, hence the project’s name.

Laser light pulses have the dual function of striking the molecules like a hammer to set them vibrating, and then of recording this vibration, whose frequencies are billions of times more acute than the sounds perceived by the human ear. The entire process is carried out in a non-invasive manner, without the addition of contrast agents, and without either destroying or disturbing the specimen.

Hence, the concentration of the various constituents of matter was mapped, and detailed three-dimensional maps of cells and tissues were created.

The results obtained will have a great impact on biology and medicine. In the future, they will allow to observe the properties of organic specimens with remarkable biochemical specificity, both to study cellular mechanisms that underpin various diseases and to automatically identify tumours in biopsies, with a better degree of accuracy and reproducibility than we have had to date

says Professor Polli. 

For more information
Visit project VIBRA’s website