Mitochondrial diseases are rare, but they are cruel.

Affecting about 1 in 5,000 children, these devastating illnesses are caused by defects in cellular organelles called mitochondria. Their cells starved of energy, most stricken children die by age 12. There is no cure, and diagnosis can take months.

Colorado State University biomedical engineer Jesse Wilson wants to change all of that. The assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering is proposing a radical new imaging technology that could diagnose mitochondrial defects in an instant. His technology could one day save children and families agonizing months awaiting diagnoses, and it could open doors to life-saving trial therapies.

To do it, Wilson has the support of Colorado’s Boettcher Foundation, which has named him one of seven winners of the 2018 Webb-Waring Early Career Investigator Biomedical Research Award. As a Boettcher Investigator, Wilson will receive about $235,000 in research support for three years. The awards are meant to provide a foundation for promising early-career biomedical researchers at Colorado research institutions to compete for major federal and private awards.

A faculty member in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the School of Biomedical Engineering, Wilson’s expertise is in biomedical optics and digital signal processing for imaging and microscopy. He has previously been awarded other funding for developing virtual biopsy technologies to improve early detection of melanoma.

As a Boettcher Investigator, Wilson will develop a new laser microscope to study mitochondria and metabolism. His ultimate goal is to create a cost-effective, non-invasive, painless way to diagnose mitochondrial diseases.

Wilson’s project could also open new doors to fundamental studies of mitochondria, which are the organelles responsible for 90 percent of our cells’ energy demands. Their functioning is as central to human health as breathing, he says.

More and more, mitochondrial defects are being implicated in cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and many other conditions. Wilson’s research could give the world a previously impossible view of mitochondrial functioning.

“We want to enable a deeper understanding of how mitochondrial faults contribute to disease, and how they can be targeted to improve outcomes,” Wilson said.

The microscope uses very short laser pulses that can analyze mitochondrial respiratory chain components at picosecond timescales (1 picosecond = 1 billionth of a second). How molecules handle energy in these extremely short timescales can reveal key information about their structure and surrounding molecules, and unprecedented detail on mitochondrial functioning.

Wilson plans to use these molecular signatures to pinpoint telltale signs of mitochondrial dysfunction. His initial experiments will involve examining mitochondria and tissue from a mouse model of Barth Syndrome, one of the more well-known mitochondrial diseases.

What’s more, Wilson’s plan is to build on existing technology called “confocal reflectance” to directly probe the respiratory chain functions of mitochondria. There is no microscope in the world right now that can do this.

To accomplish this enormous goal, Wilson will leverage his expertise in transient absorption imaging. In addition, he will receive help from collaborators: Adam Chicco, associate professor of biomedical sciences who researches heart mitochondria and Barth Syndrome; and Randy Bartels, professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in ultrafast and nonlinear optics.

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