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26 June 2012

The laser: a solution looking for problems?

This is just the sort of thing Theodore Maiman said he had in mind when was interviewed 50 years ago, after being the first to successfully demonstrate the laser: medical procedures that would change or even save lives in ways as yet unimagined.

This time, the laser has been used to perform surgery on an unborn fetus.

Surgeons at the University of Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital reported they have performed the first-ever in utero surgery on a fetus. A rare tumor diagnosed about halfway through the pregnancy via ultrasound was removed from the roof of the mouth using laesr technology. A few months later, the baby was born at full-term and healthy.

Never mind that one newspaper at the time called Maiman’s pioneering ruby laser “a solution in search of a problem.” Applications have been developed in nearly every facet of life, and the list of medical solutions that lasers provide is impressive.

Starting from the beginning, medical applications of lasers were life-enhancing -- removing a birthmark known as port-wine stain -- as well as life-saving -- treating skin cancer. Eye surgery was another early application, as IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center's James Wynne told SPIE.tv in a recent video.

Today lasers are used widely in several medical fields:
  • dermatology: removing tattoos and hair as well as life-threatening tumors
  • ophthalmology: restoring vision by repairing the lens, reattaching a damaged retina or creating a prosthetic retina
  • oncology: treating cancer through photodynamic therap, and diagnosing tumors are earlier and earlier stages for better patient recovery results
  • surgery, dentistry, veterinary medicine and numerous other therapeutic as well as diagnostic applications.

… not to mention wide-ranging nonmedical applications:
  • laser guide stars for astronomical observations
  • lasers for manufacturing everything from smartphones to lumber
  • fiber optic laser systems for broadcasting the internet
  • smart-car technology to detect people or objects behind the vehicle, nondestructive testing of bridges, laser light shows … and much more.

What will the laser do next? Plenty! For example, lasers are enabling new personalized medicine regimens with treatments tailored to an individual’s particular genomes, and hold promise to provide abundant clean energy through the process of fusion.

Hear first-hand from more than three dozen laser experts about what the laser can do and what’s next in a series of videos celebrating the recent 50th anniversary of technology -- and hear from Miles Padgett (University of Glasgow) about the latest in optical tweezers for manipulating light and John Dudley (Univ. de Franche-Comté, CNRS Institut FEMTO-ST) on new directions in nonlinear optics, in ongoing video coverage on SPIE.tv.

Ted Maiman was among visionaries honored in a tribute display shown during the 2010 observance of the 50th anniversary of laser technology. Photo: Theodore Harold Maiman - © Bettmann/CORBIS.

18 June 2012

Not just about star-gazing: Astronomy changes our lives


This image of the Small Magellanic Cloud located 163,000 light-years from Earth, was rendered from data acquired by Ryan Hannahoe and processed by Robert Gendler, from equipment at the Fair Dinkum Skies Observatory in Australia -- an example of both the dazzling images we now have from space and the collaboration that characterizes space exploration and astronomy.

Through the capabilities of optics and photonics, astronomical telescopes and instrumentation systems have vastly increased humankind’s knowledge about the physical composition and history of the universe -- including our own planet and its natural phenomena.

And, again thanks to optics and photonics, these mind-bending data and dazzling images are not the purview of only astronomers and physicists. Images in particular -- arriving at Earth, as Nobel Laureate Saul Perlmutter observed in a recent talk, on light that left its origin in the cosmos in some cases before our solar system was formed-- are rendered on desktops and television screens everywhere, bringing the furthest reaches of space into homes, classrooms and offices.

Of course, new information prompts new questions.

Theorists such as Stephen Hawking pondering a Theory of Everything to explain some of those unanswered questions look for clues in the results of past and present missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

Besides scientific knowledge, there are other very significant results of space exploration.

International missions bring nations together via collaboration. The LHC, James Webb Space Telescope and Extremely Large Telescope project are examples of major endeavors that align multiple countries and regions who otherwise compete in a number of ways. 

And spin-off technologies transferred from astronomical missions and space travel abound in our everyday lives.

For example, optical systems designers Roger Angel (University of Arizona, College of Optical Sciences) has recently turned his attention from space telescopes to efficient solar-energy systems -- using technology originally built for studying planets to directly improve the green-energy options for people on our planet.

A long list of products and innovations ranging from invisible braces and scratch-resistant eyeglass coatings, to digital cameras and medical imaging technologies, to satellite communications systems, the internet, and many more have been derived from inventions patented by NASA, the European Space Agency, and other agencies and organizations as a result of space exploration.

What’s next?

Leading astronomical instrumentation researchers and developers will meet in Amsterdam next month and reveal future directions for projects now in play and in planning. You can get an idea of some of what they’ll talk about in a recent special section of the journal Optical Engineering on space telescopes. (Guest editors Mark Clampin [James Webb Space Telescope] and Kathryn Flanagan [Space Telescope Science Institute] are both participants in the Amsterdam meeting, SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation.)

Get out that telescope -- keep looking up!

11 June 2012

Hot topics, cool school: Next-generation medical imaging at NUI Galway

Jijo Ulahannan
(SPIE Member Jijo Ulahannan, assistant professor at Government College Kasaragod in India, is among students at the biophotonics and imaging graduate summer school 7-13 June at the National University of Ireland [NUI] Galway. He filed this guest blog with a first-hand report.)

The international Biophotonics and Imaging Graduate Summer School (BIGSS 2012) is underway in the beautiful coastal city of Galway focusing on two of the hottest topics in the field of biophotonics, namely optical coherence tomography (OCT) and photoacoustic imaging.

About 30 graduate students and early career professionals are here for the event, which is organized by the NUI Galway Applied Optics group and chaired by Professor Martin Leahy who also leads the National Biophotonics Platform Ireland. Major sponsors are SPIE and Photonics4Life.

The summer school brings the past, present and trends for the future of biophotonics and microscopic imaging techniques to aspiring young graduates and post-doctoral fellows.

Major areas being covered in the graduate school are fundamentals and applications of OCT and photoacoustic imaging as well as microscopic techniques and optical trapping for biophotonics applications. The school also has a competitive edge in the form of a poster competition for students.

Biophotonics today touches the human life more than ever by providing several harmless diagnostic techniques that are cheap compared to other imaging methods such as MRI, CT scan, ultrasound, and others.

According to experts, biophotonics ― especially OCT ― has reached a peak research scenario, and several commercially viable products are now entering the market.

Almost all of the participants are motivated by the change that this type of research can bring to the world by providing low-cost, nondestructive and totally safe optical imaging devices.

Some of the participants want to contribute to medical diagnostics by developing new cheap and portable devices that can serve much of the developing world. We today compete with the cost of sources, high-speed detection devices and the time-consuming computational techniques.
The school began with the review presentation of Professor Wolfgang Drexler of Medizinische Universität Wien, to be followed by eight other leading experts in the field who have arrived from all over the world. We hope to learn more about the competing world of high resolution, high speed, and multispectral imaging techniques.

It is also important to develop the skills of commercializing new findings. We are therefore very much looking forward to the live demonstrations and the session on marketing techniques at the end of the summer school.

BIGSS 2012 participants are motivated by the potential of biophotonics to provide cheaper, safer medical imaging with potential to serve the developing world.