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Can New Imaging Method Allow Scientists to see Hard-to-View Area of Colon?

Published on July 15, 2020 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 6 months ago


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Researchers used a 3-D imaging method to visualize a hard-to-see area of the colon.

The findings:

Researchers developed a three-dimensional imaging method that allows them to view the enteric nervous system (ENS), a typically hard-to-view area of the colon.

Why it matters:

The ENS controls most aspects of bowel function, and ENS defects can lead to debilitating and/or life-threatening bowel dysfunction. However, the ENS in humans is difficult to view because it is buried in colon tissue and blocked by other colon cells. Previously, ENS could only be viewed with two-dimensional sections that are routinely used for human pathology. These sections provide limited information about the ENS, making it difficult to diagnose human bowel motility disorders.

Who conducted the study:


Robert Heuckeroth, MD, PhD

Robert Heuckeroth, MD, PhD, a pediatric gastroenterologist in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at CHOP, is the senior author of the study. Dr. Kahleb Graham and Silvia Huerta López were lead authors working in Dr. Heuckeroth’s laboratory. Dr. Heuckeroth is the Norman and Irma Braman Endowed Chair for GI Motility, the research director for CHOP’s Lustgarten Center for GI Motility, and a professor of Pediatrics and Cell and Developmental Biology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. His study team included physician-scientists from CHOP Research Institute; the Departments of Pathology, Pediatrics, and Surgery at CHOP; and the Department of Neurosciences at the University of Toledo.

How they did it:

Dr. Heuckeroth and colleagues worked with colon tissue from animal models and humans to develop the imaging method, which combined several techniques: tissue clearing, immunohistochemistry, confocal microscopy, and quantitative analysis of full thickness bowel without sectioning. The team created 280 confocal Z-stacks, which allows them to produce images in 3-D, and generated quantitative data about the ENS from 14 adult human colons. They also visualized the ENS in two children with Hirschsprung disease, a birth defect that requires surgical intervention because the ENS is missing.

Quick thoughts:

“Having three-dimensional images of the colon enteric nervous system provides us with new insight into the cells that control bowel function and may help us better understand disorders of the colon,” Dr. Heuckeroth said. “We believe our new approach will help us understand bowel diseases in more detail and could lead to new approaches to therapy.”

What’s next:

The images obtained by the researchers are now available on a public database, and other researchers are invited to perform quantitative analysis using the images, according to the paper.

Where the study was published:

The study appeared in the journal Gastroenterology.

Where to learn more:

Read more about the study in a CHOP press release.