Major strides have been made in our understanding of light and its applications in bioscience and healthcare through the development of novel lasers, microscopes, imaging systems, specialized software and complex opto-mechanical designs.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funding has played an important part in the internationally recognised success of the Optical Manipulation Group (OMG) at the University of St Andrews. Their research has led to innovations in light beam shaping, and novel applications for optical tweezing and sorting. Among these innovations is the Airy Beam Light Sheet Microscope, a wide field of view imaging modality that uses light beam shaping so that optical exposure is kept to a minimum. This allows imaging over long periods of time, and is able to achieve high-contrast 3D images up to 500 times faster than conventional confocal microscopy techniques, with minimal damage to tissue.

Since 2006, M Squared Lasers Limited has worked closely with the OMG to develop commercial instrumentation. The long-standing business-university interaction includes letters of support, joint research grants, staff training, knowledge transfer and intellectual property licensing resulting in the company engineering and marketing a range of commercial laser and millimetrewave products based on University innovations.

In 2015 M Squared opened its specialised biophotonics division ‘M Squared Life’ at the Surrey Research Park, and in 2017 launched the ‘Aurora’ Airy Beam Light Sheet Microscope. This microscope, based on underpinning research at St Andrews, is the first transformative imaging technology to be commercialised by the company.

“Biophotonics and laser-based innovations can have a huge impact in medicine. Our work with research partners, and in particular the University of St Andrews, brings our technology much closer to the sectors – importantly healthcare – where we hope our work will have a major impact on people’s lives.” Dr Graeme Malcolm OBE, CEO and Founder of M Squared.

‘Aurora’ microscopy overcomes many technological obstacles to produce accurate images at cellular level. ‘Aurora’ is now in use at a range of international research institutes (including the Maurice Wohl Clinical Neurosciences Institute at Kings College London, the National Physical Laboratory, and the Niels Bohr Institute).

The ‘Aurora’ Microscope is a step change in lightsheet imaging technology, and has already allowed researchers to gain unprecedented insight into key scientific questions. It has produced 3D images fine enough to capture neural connections, support 3D volumetric imaging, leading to increased understanding of neuro degenerative diseases and organ regeneration. ‘Aurora’ is enabling new discoveries in neuroscience research, shedding new light on neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders including autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia and intellectual disability.

This technology could also lead to breakthroughs in understanding neurodegenerative disorders including dementia, Motor Neuron Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. Alongside neuroscience research, Airy Light- Sheet technology is also being used in research on neural organoids, stem cells, and how the pancreas develops in Zebrafish.

In 2017 the commercial success and quality of the images provided by the ‘Aurora’ Airy Beam Sheet Microscope resulted in M Squared being awarded the Institute of Physics Business Innovation Award at the Houses of Parliament. M Squared was also granted a Prosperity Partnership fund with the University of St Andrews, from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, a part of which supports work in the diagnosis and treatment of dementia and cancer.


This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and compiled and published by NCUB.