Using An Optical Microscope To Detect Disease

Using An Optical Microscope To Detect Disease

It is commonly known that the use of optical microscopes has opened the door to discovery about the microscopic world.  The microscope has become a key tool in the detection of diseases.

pathology_sicklecellanemia40x02Sickle Cell Anaemia/ Sickle Cell Disease is a rising cause of illness, sometimes leading to death, in the UK.  It is a series of blood disorders where the haemoglobin carrying, red blood cells can be seen, under a microscope, to be distorted in shape and, as a result, are less effective in the transport of oxygen around the body.  They tend not to be a robust as normally shaped red blood cells and they do not move around the body as easily and effectively.  It is an inherited condition with around 12,500 patients and 240,000 possible carriers in the UK population (figures are for 2010).

Sickle cell anaemia is detected from a range of simple blood tests.  The sample of blood is examined by a lab technician who is looking out for the abnormally shaped red blood cells.  Once they are detected the patient may be offered further testing alongside ongoing medical treatment to help to manage the condition.  The key part of this process is the use of the microscope to examine the blood sample.

malaria ImageAnother commonly known and very serious condition is Malaria, with 214 million cases across the globe in 2015, which is spread by mosquitos.  A small parasite is passed from the mosquito to the host when the mosquito takes a blood meal, a patient can become infected from just one bite.  Again, speedy and accurate diagnosis is the key to effective treatment.  A sample of blood is examined under a microscope, but this time the lab technician is looking for a parasite, a single celled microorganism of the plasmodium type.  If this is detected the patient is treated with anti malarial medication, starting as soon as possible after diagnosis.

leukaemiaBlood tests and blood smears also feature in the diagnosis of Acute Lymphocytic Leukaemia (ALL) the most common childhood cancer, but one with a good chance of remission.  This time the lab technician is looking for abnormalities in the number and kind of cells in the blood.  A small sample is examined, in the past this was done by a lab technician but this is more normally an automated process in a modern hospital although about 10-20% of samples will still be examined manually.  There is also a need to examine bone marrow for abnormalities in white blood cell production.

There are a range of treatment options available, from chemotherapy to bone marrow transplant and the treatment offered will depend upon how each individual responds.


Microscopy has opened up a whole range of understanding for the medical world, who are able to examine and compare samples of blood from healthy and unwell individuals and gain greater understanding of the causes and treatment of diseases.  This understanding grows almost daily, making treatment possible and successful for a wide range of diseases.