OHSU joins partnership with Hillsboro microscope specialist FEI

Oregon Health & Science University announced a partnership this morning with FEI Co., the Hillsboro electron microscope maker, that will give OHSU researchers top-end microscopes to help them study complex diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

OHSU researcher Joe Gray, who came to the Portland medical school from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory last year, will run a new lab equipped with FEI’s tools.

Initially, OHSU will buy $10 million of equipment, including two high-end electron microscopes from FEI. FEI, for its part, will provide access to next-generation prototypes that are not yet commercially available, as well as research scientists to work in the lab.

Gray, a cancer specialist, said that the goal is to look at tissue-level structures and then zoom in to examine cells and molecules — to see how it all fits together. The result could be cancer treatments that work faster and result in longer remissions, he said.

“As it is now today one laboratory may look at angstrom-level resolution features,” he said, referring to a unit of size equivalent to one-ten-billionth of a meter. “And another laboratory somewhere else would be looking at how tissues are organized — when what we really need to do is understand the complete picture.”

Under the collaboration, OHSU scientists could obtain patents for any advances in medicine they develop, while FEI will use the lab to improve its next generation of products.

Historically, FEI has sold its powerful microscopes to electronics manufacturers and academic researchers. But life sciences is rapidly growing part of its business, with sales to that market up 30 percent in the first half of this year.

FEI said it hopes the partnership will give the company a better understanding of the role of electron microscopes in biology and help it develop better tools.

“FEI’s vision is that by making electron microscopy simple and efficient enough to use in a clinical environment, it will be able to provide insight to health-care teams that simply isn’t available with techniques used today,” Dominique Hubert, manager of FEI’s life science division, said in a written statement.

In 2008, the University of Oregon installed a $4 million FEI microscope in a new nanotechnology lab.

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