Much of the world’s focus has been on health care at a global scale this year. The following images celebrate the work of researchers who have been toiling away on tinier work. The pictures are stunning visualizations of life sciences and biomedical research being conducted to find treatments and cures for cancer.

These photographs, which includes colorful images of micro needles, brain cells, and so-called mini livers, are the winners in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Koch Institute’s annual image awards. Large-scale versions are hung in a public gallery in the Koch Institute’s Cambridge, Mass., lobby.

Captions were provided by the Koch Institute and have been edited and shortened for clarity.


Serve and Protect: A Microparticle to Fight Malnutrition
Drug design and delivery expertise is being used to encapsulate vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in microparticles to combat malnutrition. A polymer coating (green) stabilizes micronutrients and protects them from heat degradation — a common side effect in cooking. The starch (purple) on the outside facilitates its incorporation into foods such as bouillon cubes or flour. Ruojie Zhang, Shahad Alsiari, David Mankus, Margaret Bisher, Abigail Lytton- Jean, Robert Langer, Ana Jaklenec/Koch Institute/MIT
Through the Ages: Exploring Mitochondrial Shape and Function
Each color in this image marks a separate cell. The variety within and across cells presents possible evidence of a wide range of metabolic activities. Comparing this image, of a young liver, with similar images of older livers allows researchers to assess possible mitochondrial defects or dysfunctions associated with aging. Ania Puszynska, Margaret Bisher, David Mankus, Abigail Lytton-Jean, David Sabatini/Whitehead Institute/Koch Institute/MIT
Trash Talk: Putting a Stop to the Garbage Collection
Microglia (magenta) are the resident immune cells of the brain. They collect and dispose of garbage in the central nervous system. With aging, neurons produce toxic proteins that accumulate in large amyloid plaque deposits (yellow). Researchers are examining how the receptor Siglec-F (cyan) acts to modulate the immune response of microglia to amyloid plaques and hope to develop new therapies against Alzheimer’s disease. Nader Morshed, Li-Huei Tsai/Forest White Picower Institute/Koch Institute/MIT
 Mind the Zap: Using Electricity to Grow Blood Vessels
Cancer cells give off chemical signals to recruit blood vessels, which in turn deliver critical nutrients to the tumor. Taking inspiration from cancer cells, researchers use electrical fields to fabricate a network of blood vessels (red) around engineered mini livers (cyan). The resulting vasculature efficiently transports nutrients to the mini organs, promoting their long-term survival and demonstrating the “shocking” potential of electrical stimulation to improve both transplant technology and cell-based therapies. Arnav Chhabra, Edward Kah Wei Tan, Keval Vyas, Girish Rughoobur, Sangeeta N. Bhatia/Koch Institute/MIT
Tortuous Trafficking: Nanoparticles Traverse the Blood Brain Barrier
Nanoparticles carry therapeutic agents through the branching blood vessels that make up the protective blood-brain barrier. Live video tracking captures the passage of particles (seen here as speckled dots) out of the vessels and into the brain. Researchers search for the most effective drug combinations to be transported across the barrier to their intended destination. Joelle Straehla, Jeffrey Wyckoff, Paula T. Hammond/Koch Institute/MIT
Nucleotide Pool: Understanding Disruptions in Cell Division
This image shows two views of the same genetically modified pool of cells. On the left, cellular structures appear bright where cells are actively dividing. On the right, cells from the same image are visualized with the first nucleotide of a fluorescent barcode (green, red, magenta, cyan) indicating which gene in each cell’s DNA was altered. Researchers combine visual and computational analysis to identify irregularities in cell division and match them to specific genetic disruptions revealed by each cell’s DNA barcode. They use pooled screening to rapidly assess thousands of genes for their influence on cell division and its regulation. Luke Funk, Kuan-Chung Su, Iain Cheeseman, Paul Blainey/Broad Institute/Koch Institute/MIT
Making the Cut: Probing Enzyme Activity with Nanosensors
In order to grow or spread, cancer cells break down surrounding tissue using specialized enzymes called proteases. Researchers are designing tiny sensors to measure protease activity in highly specific locations. This image shows the probes (magenta) homed in on epithelial cells (green) in the colon, where proteases are hard at work. Ava Soleimany, Jesse Kirkpatrick, Susan Su, Jaideep Dudani, Qian Zhong, Ahmet Bekdemir, Sangeeta Bhatia/Koch Institute/MIT
Feast or Famine: Stem Cell Regeneration in the Intestinal Crypt
In the intestines, stem cells play a key role in tumor initiation and development. An organism’s dietary state can significantly disrupt or enhance the stem cells’ capacity to drive cancer progression. Researchers are studying the ability of intestinal stem cells to regenerate under different dietary conditions by tracking new progeny cells (thick red, above green) generated from stem cells (thin red, among green) as they travel upward from the intestinal crypts (bottom) to refresh and replenish epithelial cells in the lining of the gut (blue). Shinya Imada, Renan Oliveira Corrêa, Chia-Wei Cheng, Ömer Yilmaz/Koch Institute/MIT


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