Unblocking barriers to progress in bioimaging

Bioimaging is vital to the future of health research, but there are barriers to access and progress in the field. Wellcome’s Marion Mercier and Luigi Martino explain how our new funding calls aim to change that. 

A scan of a zebrafish scan on a computer screen

Image of a scan of a zebrafish brain from a Discovery Research funded project.


Patrick Shepherd | Wellcome

Licence: Attribution CC BY

Luigi Martino

Marion Mercier

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Unblocking barriers to progress in bioimaging
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Our understanding of biological life is dependent on our ability to visualise it. That’s why bioimaging technologies are fundamental to discovery research. 

From observing individual atoms and subcellular structures, to entire organs and organisms, bioimaging allows us to delve into biological systems and reveal the complex mechanisms underlying health and disease.

As part of our Discovery Research programme, we're committed to widening access to tools and technologies that enable researchers to undertake groundbreaking research.

Wellcome has a rich history of supporting bioimaging technologies and infrastructure, and we want to progress this work further. From the high costs of imaging equipment to the lack of standardised methodologies, there are many barriers to progress in the field that need to be addressed. 

That’s why we’re launching a series of funding calls starting this year to help develop novel tools and technologies and to increase access to these key methodologies in low- and middle-income countries. 

Here, we share how we’ve supported the bioimaging field so far – and what we plan to do next.

Our work in bioimaging 

Wellcome has supported innovation in bioimaging over the years, including:

  • eBIC, the electron Bio-Imaging Centre at Diamond Light Source
  • UK Biobank Whole Organ Imaging Studies initiative
  • imaging data repositories like the ones hosted at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI)

We have also facilitated bringing imaging communities together to share learning and experience. We hosted the first meeting of the Volume EM community initiative which is now a well-established entity that is pushing the boundaries of volume imaging methodologies in the UK.

This support has already led to significant advancements in health research. It has provided access to state of the art methodologies and allowed the acquisition of complex datasets that are now easily accessible to life science researchers.

Funding for imaging has been made via a mix of Wellcome’s open mode schemes and directed funding.

Identifying barriers to progress 

Given our ongoing involvement and its potential to discovery research, we commissioned a landscape analysis of the global bioimaging research field.

As a global funder, we are aware that barriers to progress in a field are context-specific and might differ for researchers based in low- and high-resource settings. As such, it was vital that we engaged with a diverse and representative population of researchers for this analysis. 

The report showed that barriers fall broadly into two categories: infrastructural and scientific/technical.

Infrastructural barriers in bioimaging

There are major challenges with:

  • the high costs of imaging equipment and infrastructure

  • the lack of availability of and access to imaging facilities

  • the lack of technical expertise necessary to support researchers in acquiring and processing complex imaging data

While these barriers affect researchers in all settings, their negative impact was far greater in low- and middle-income countries.  

Scientific and technical barriers in bioimaging 

These include difficulties around:

  • sample preparation and methodological standardisation

  • analysis of large and complex bioimaging datasets

  • limitations in spatial and temporal resolution

On a broader level, integrating different bioimaging technologies across scales and combining imaging with other methods were identified as challenges. Solving these will be key to gaining new insights into biological processes.

Wellcome funding for bioimaging 

Based on the findings in the report, we have planned two initial bioimaging funding activities. 

Developing novel technologies and methodologies to unlock discovery research in particular areas of interest

We want to enable the development of novel tools and technology for bioimaging. Our Bioimaging Technology Development Awards, a two-phase directed funding call, aims to bring together technology developers and users in collaborative frameworks to tackle some of the biggest methodological barriers currently holding up discovery research.

The initial phase will identify novel teams with bold and ambitious technology development programmes. We will fund these for 18 months to allow them to collect proof-of-principle data and/or expand their collaborative team. Some of the most promising teams will then be scaled up to fully funded programmes for a maximum of six and a half additional years.

Having already invested in technologies imaging at the scale of atoms-cells, we will now focus on cells-tissues. This is where some of the most ambitious biological questions remain unanswered – in the fields of connectomics, cell atlasing and more broadly in the visualisation of dynamic and systems biology, for example. 

We will also be interested in novel methodologies aimed at analysing complex imaging datasets and in programmes that adapt bioimaging technology for better use in low-resource settings.

Addressing the lack of opportunities to access imaging facilities and training for researchers based in low-resource settings

We aim to increase access to bioimaging facilities and training in bioimaging methodologies for researchers in low- and middle-income countries.

This activity, launching in 2024, will see a series of funding calls delivered via a partnership with Global Bioimaging (GBI), a global consortium of imaging infrastructures. Their established network and understanding of the global bioimaging landscape will maximise reach and impact. 

Helping researchers thrive 

These are the first funding activities of a programme that we hope will be of great benefit to the community.

We want to push the boundaries of what is technically feasible with the current state of the arts, and to ensure equitable access to novel technology and the discoveries it promises.

We take on these challenges with the conviction that they will unblock research in new fields of enquiry, transform existing fields and create environments where researchers can thrive.

This article was first published on 12 September 2023.