“Crystal ribcage” technology pioneers new approaches

By Katherine Gianni

It’s no secret that our lungs play a vital role in our daily lives — ensuring we can breathe, fend off infections, and adapt to various challenges. Despite their importance, the organs still puzzle many medical experts, especially when they’re affected by diseases. While traditional tools like MRI and CT scans are helpful when a patient is experiencing a lung-related illness, they can still fall short in providing the detailed, real-time information needed to understand the intricacies of lung health.

Enter the groundbreaking innovation known as the “Crystal Ribcage.” Developed by researchers in Boston University’s College of Engineering, Pulmonary Center, Center for Multiscale and Translational Mechanobiology, and Neurophtonics Center, the technology is poised to revolutionize not only our understanding of lung function but also holds immense potential for other organs and treatments. In new research, published this month in Nature Methods, the Crystal Ribcage acts as a clear, protective shield for a mouse’s lungs, allowing scientists to get a close view of how these organs work in real-time, and at a cellular level. What makes this technology special is that it doesn’t disrupt the lung’s natural processes — breathing and blood circulation continue as usual while the researchers observe.

In this Q&A, senior author Assistant Professor Hadi Nia (BME, MSE) discusses the Crystal Ribcage, how it’s reshaping our understanding of lung research, and its potential uses beyond the lungs.

What is the primary challenge highlighted in the research when it comes to understanding lung health?

Hadi Nia (BME, MSE)

The lung is the site of many fatal pathologies such as primary and metastatic cancers, respiratory infections and both obstructive and restrictive diseases that impact its functions at the cellular level. With existing imaging modalities such as MRI, CT, and histological analyses, dynamic single cell events at the early stages of disease progression, such as the interactions of immune cells with cancer cells and bacteria, cannot be resolved. With the crystal ribcage, we can for the first time image the mouse lung down to cellular levels while it retains its physiological functions such as respiration, circulation of blood, and immune activity. We are now able to study many lung diseases at the earliest steps of disease initiation.

Read the full Q&A at the BU Experts Medium page