Unprecedented images from Webb Telescope spark excitement in local biomedical researchers

Published: Jul. 12, 2022 at 10:05 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 13, 2022 at 7:50 AM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - The scientists at the Stowers Institute in Kansas City work with microscopes, not telescopes. Their background is in biology, not physics. But, their eyes lit up like excited children when asked about the images released this week of galaxies thousands to billions of light years away.

“It was incredible. I mean, you’re looking back 13 billion years in time,” exclaimed Jay Unruh, the Stowers Institute’s director of scientific data.

“I mean, it’s essentially us looking at the beginning of the universe,” marveled Hannah Wilson, one of their scientists.

The images come from the James Webb Space Telescope, launched a million miles from Earth.

The Stowers Institute’s scientists perform cellular research on organisms in an effort to learn more about how diseases work, hoping to uncover what might cause them and inform how they could be cured.

Executive Director and Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Alejandro Sanchez Alvarado, Ph.D. said there are parallels between their research on tiny cells and NASA’s research into the vast cosmos.

“Whether it is at the cosmic scale, or whether it is at the microscopic scale, the job of scientists is to really make the invisible visible,” Sanchez Alvarado explained.

Unruh said one reason the Webb Telescope could capture such clear images is because it is in space, away from Earth’s atmosphere.

“The reason the sky is blue is because we have an atmosphere and that blurs everything. And in the same way, biology is blurry. You look at my hand, I can’t see through. I can’t see what’s going on inside there,” Unruh explained.

That’s where Wilson comes in. She’s known as a histologist.

“My main project is to remove lipids from brains,” she said, referring to mouse brains. “Lipids have a really bad habit of scattering light as soon as it hits it, so you can’t see all the way through.”

The brain is opaque until she adds a solution to remove the lipids. After that, the brain looks more like a tiny jellyfish in its transparency, allowing researchers to see deep inside.

Sanchez Alvarado said what’s so exciting about what the Webb Telescope can see is to think about what it means about potential advancements in his field of cellular research.

“If we can, as a species, overcome the limitation of distance and space to reveal the edge of the cosmos,” he reasoned, “we should be able to overcome the limitations of why it is what we have not been able to cure and eliminate a number of diseases that afflict us.”