Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, used an innovative imaging tool to zoom in on a person’s airways safely in real time to gain an unprecedented view of how his or her body reacts to allergens [1,2]. The imaging revealed key differences between the asthma and non-asthma groups in the smooth muscle tissue that surrounds critical airways, and is responsible for constriction. In a complementary series of experiments, researchers also uncovered heightened immune responses in the airways of folks with allergic asthma. The findings offer important new clues in the quest to better understand and guide treatment for asthma, a condition that affects more than 300 million people around the world.
The breakthrough came when Suter realized that smooth muscle’s highly organized cellular structure, which she likens to strands of rope, presented an opportunity. She could obtain an additional layer of information by measuring not just the amount of light reflected back from the surface of airways, but also differences in the direction and speed of that light as it scatters. She and her colleagues used this approach to develop a new imaging method that they’ve dubbed orientation-resolved OCT (OR-OCT).
According to Suter, OR-OCT images can be taken during a traditional bronchoscopy procedure in which a flexible scope is used to observe a patient’s airways and lungs. The OR-OCT-imaging procedure itself takes less than a minute to complete and is done without exposing patients to ionizing radiation.