Software offers image enhancement for research tasks

As scientists conduct more of their research electronically, Media Cybernetics LP, which makes software used to analyze images, has begun carving out a niche among researchers at numerous federal agencies.

The company's hallmark Image-Pro Plus enables researchers to enhance images in much the same way that imagery analysts can enhance satellite images to pull out and highlight certain features using special functions for contrast and light filtering. Changes or features revealed in an image can offer researchers clues into mysteries such as how certain substances affect living organisms.

The product - as well as similar products, such as the public-domain NIH Image from the National Institutes of Health - signifies a trend away from traditional photography and toward digital photography for documenting and studying experiments under the microscope. Media Cybernetics' customers include the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and NIH.

Robert Zucker, an Image-Pro Plus user and a research biologist at the EPA laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C., said about half of the science community has begun making the shift toward digital photography.

The process involves capturing images directly from a digitally equipped microscope and moving those images into a software program where they can be analyzed.

"Everyone Wants...Digital Imaging"

Scientists want to capture and analyze images digitally under the microscope because the method is neater than "wet" darkroom photography, which requires chemicals to develop the images. The digital method also enables scientists to view images in ways that are not possible with traditional photography. "Everyone wants cameras on top of microscopes to do digital imaging," Zucker said.

According to Media Cybernetics, Image-Pro Plus lets researchers conduct a host of analyses with their images. "It's flexible for their imaging needs," product manager Jeff Knipe said.

The product has a number of bells and whistles, Knipe said. For example, the software automatically can count similar components of an image. A researcher might use this feature to count cells on a slide rather than counting them manually.

The product also includes a time-lapse function, so researchers can view a series of images in a "movie" format. That makes it possible to see over time how a cell, for example, changes during exposure to toxins. Additionally, the product can measure images and calculate ratios that scientists need for their studies.

But Zucker cautioned that scientists should be careful when using image analysis software that can make a fuzzy image more clear. "Sometimes you may alter the data that's in the image," he said. "When you start moving these buttons around, you're also changing your data."

NASA researchers have used Image-Pro Plus to study the protein crystals grown during John Glenn's space shuttle trip last fall. In space, the crystals grow larger and are "better ordered," according to Russell Judge, a research scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "Once you know the structure, you can use them [in medical or industrial applications]," Judge said.

Because NASA researchers vary the conditions in which they grow crystals, they gather many images needing analyzing, Judge said. The Media Cybernetics product helps keep up with all the images, he said. "We want to have a picture record of what we've got," Judge said. Keeping a record helps the researchers duplicate, if needed, the conditions that created a large number of well-ordered cells.

Image-Pro Plus needs 32M of RAM and a Pentium PC running with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.0, according to Knipe. The product retails for close to $4,000.

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