Scanning electron microscopy and pharmaceutical research topics

By Karl Kersten - Mar 1, 2018

Pharmaceutical research and questions linked to drug development and applications is a very diverse topic. Also the instrumentation involved in research and development is just as diverse. In this blog we will focus on the use of scanning electron microscopy (SEM) in three different research topics.

Understanding nano-bio interfaces

The diversity of technologies used within pharmaceutical research, with an emphasis on the importance of microscopy techniques, is summed up in the review of Jin et al.[1]. Nowadays, microscopic observations play a key role in nanotechnology research with applications in pharmaceutical sciences.

Multi-scale observations are especially needed to understand nano-bio interfaces, where a wide range of phenomena are to be described. The benefit described in the SEM section is fewer artefacts, compared to atomic force microscopy, since no physical interaction with the sample is needed to gain images.

In general, nano-bio interfaces can be understood as cell – nanotube or tissue – nanoparticle interaction and potential morphological changes occurring due to nanomaterials in cells and tissues. Observations of these interfaces enable future developments in pharmaceutical applications.


Figure 1: SEM image of tannic acid.


 Figure 2: SEM image of Prozac.

Observing microvesicles

Extracellular microvesicles (EMVs) are membranous nano-sized cellular organelles naturally released by cells in vitro and in living organisms. Microvesicles can be found in various human body fluids: blood plasma, urine, breast milk, and amniotic fluid.

As they have been observed to carry functional proteins, RNA molecules and antigens, they can be understood as a novel way of cell-cell communication. Previous research work has shown that altered microvesicles gained from bovine milk containing mRNA and miRNA can be transferred to immune cells to potentially alter immune cell function.

In the study described by Maburutse et al., various preparation techniques for microvesicles were compared [2]. The microvesicles were observed after preparation via SEM via secondary electron detection. To enable this observation to take place, the vesicles were fixed with paraformaldehyde, and air dried. The various preparation techniques resulted in a unique set of characteristics in the microvesicles.


Optimizing solid self-nano-emulsifying drug delivery

As a final example, we can also consider drug delivery. Self-nano-emulsifying drug-delivery systems (SNEDDS) have emerged as effective delivery systems due to the development of enhanced bioavailability of lipophilic drugs. Dash et al. describe in a study an optimization of solid self-nano-emulsifying drug delivery for enhanced solubility and dissolution [3].

Involving scanning electron microscopy, it was concluded that there was no evidence of drug precipitation on the surface of solid SNEDDS. This will lead to a better future application, although investigations on animal/human models are needed.


Figure 3: SEM image of pharmaceutical powder


Figure 4: SEM image of pharmaceutical powder.

More on SEM in pharmaceutical research

The three previous examples should provide a better understanding of the power and potential of SEM within pharmaceutical research. In short, the successful application of SEM fuels the development of more powerful, better-performing drugs.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive into the use of scanning electron microscopy for the purpose of drug enhancement, our application note on pharmaceutical research through SEM should be a valuable read.

It details how SEM provides insights into cellular interactions to improve cancer research, and the role of SEM in preventing hospital-acquired infections, among other things.

Download a free copy of the application note here:

Discover SEM within pharmaceutical research


1) Multi-Scale Observation of Biological Interactions of Nanocarriers: from Nano to Macro, Jin et al., Microsc Res Tech September 2010, 73 (9):813-823

Evaluation and Characterization of Milk-derived Microvesicles Isolated from Bovine Colostrum, Maburutse et al., Korean J. Food Sci. An. 37 (5), 2017

3) Design, optimization and evaluation of glipizide solid self-nanoemulsifying drug delivery for enhanced solubility and dissolution, Dash et al., Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal (2015)23, 528-540

About the author

Karl Kersten is head of the Application team at Thermo Fisher Scientific, the world leader in serving science. He is passionate about the Thermo Fisher Scientific product and likes converting customer requirements into product or feature specifications so customers can achieve their goals.

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