Instead of using chemicals or dyes to freeze the cell to obtain structural information, as is done in other methods, the new approach simply uses laser light, which leaves the cell intact and alive.
Since the 3-D views provide a much more detailed look at how cells function, they may offer new insights into the cellular changes that accompany a disease. These images may also led to the development of better methods for diagnosing and treating disease.
"Pathologists look at tissue samples to diagnose disease. They study the cells in the sample and the changes they undergo as disease progresses," Discovery News quote Michael Feld, professor of physics at the Massachusetts institute of Technology and director of its George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory, as saying.
For creating a three-dimensional image, the scientists collect over one hundred two-dimensional images of the cell snapped at different angles. They use a computer to combine the 2-D images into a single 3-D view.
Feld revealed that it took about 10 seconds for his team to produce a 3-D image, when they first attempted the technique. He further said that later the image production time was reduced to about 1/10th of a second.
"Wow they have done something really neat here. In the past what people have had to do is take a 2-D image and rotate the sample and then take another 2-D image. It's usually pretty complicated," said Mark Bates, a researcher in applied physics at Harvard University.
"They (Feld and his team) didn't have to move the sample or change their focal plane. All they did was scan one laser with respect to another and reconstructed an entire 3-D image," he added.
Using the new approach, Feld and his colleagues have discerned the nucleus and nucleolus of cervical cancer cells and other cell types, as well as unidentified organelles in the cytoplasm.
Currently, structures several hundred nanometers across can be discerned. The researchers are working to improve this resolution to 150 nanometers.