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#FacesofPhotonics: SPIE Britton Chance Award Winner and Professor of Radiology, Samuel Achilefu

LIGHTING THE WAY: Samuel Achilefu
Recipient of the 2019 SPIE Britton Chance Award in Biomedical Optics; Professor of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis; 2019 SPIE BiOS Hot Topics keynote speaker: these are just a few of the titles currently held by Dr. Samuel Achilefu.

Achilefu's research is changing the way we think about cancer therapy. Some cancer cells do not respond to traditional treatment, but Achilefu's team has found that if you stimulate those inactive cancer cells with light, they become responsive, providing surgeons with a more accurate path to removing the cancer. "I really believe we will be reaching a solution very soon," Achilefu commented.

To read more about the SPIE Britton Chance Award and Achilefu's research, see the January SPIE Professional article. In the meantime, please enjoy his interview with SPIE's Faces of Photonics!


1. How did you become interested in the optics and photonics field? Was there a person who inspired you?

I am driven by curiosity and by the vast potential that optics holds for advances in biomedical research. Originally, I was inspired by Britton Chance to work in optics. I’ve always worked in biomedical research, but when the area of biophotonics started taking root in the early 90s, Britton reached out and asked if we would be able to integrate molecular imaging into the whole idea of near-infrared optical imaging. That was a new concept because I wasn’t working in that area before that time. Working with Britton was a life-changing experience.

TAKE A CHANCE: Achilefu keeps this picture of colleague and mentor Britton Chance 
on his desk. It is fond memories such as this one that Achilefu spoke of 
when asked about his relationship with Chance.

2. Share the story of your favorite outreach or volunteer experience.


Introducing high-school students to their first exposure to research in the lab is priceless. I enjoy watching them learn and grow, and become "experts" in their project areas. Also, outreach to high-school students in the community has allowed me to contemplate basic questions in a way that would not have been possible without their input and their queries. For example, "If lasers can find a speeding car, why can't they find cancer without help?"


3. Explain your current research. How does your work impact society?

My research focuses on developing new drugs that can target cancer with high selectivity. We then use this information to deliver drugs to cancer cells so that they can be killed without harming normal tissue. We also develop devices that allow surgeons to visualize cancer in real-time for accurate removal. Our work spans the basics of science and engineering, as well as human applications.


4. Have you ever had to embrace failure? Describe a challenging situation, either personal or professional, and how you overcame it.

Yes, often. However, I do not call them failures; instead, they are teaching lessons. I always remind my students that if you always get the results you set out for, you are not asking the hard questions. If your experiment can’t fail, you are just examining the facts and not getting to the heart of the scientific question.

POSITIVITY IN ACTION: Achilefu works with students in his lab at the Washington University School of Medicine in
St. Louis

A good example is an experiment I did many years ago. I remember setting up the experiment: it was supposed to target cancer cells. The positive control did exactly what we dreamt of, and we were excited about that. Then we tried the negative control. To our surprise, it worked even better than the positive. Although it delayed our efforts to publish the work for several years, it opened up a new avenue for us to explore how to target cancer cells with our light molecules. That’s where we are today!

This happens on a routine basis – things we set out to work one way do not work like we want them to. The question then becomes, what do you do next? You don’t want to dwell on negative results for too long. Do you make changes, or do you allow the findings to lead you to your next test. Unfortunately, when you write grant proposals you are expected to detail what you are going to do and, most of the time, you need to deliver what you promised to do. So I think the funding mechanisms we have here sort of kill those creativities in a sense. You want to get to the bottom of what you promised to do, but at times, the results lead you to something else that you didn’t even anticipate.


FELLOW FELLOWS: Achilefu and Chance, both SPIE Fellows, collaborated on projects that 
paved the way for Achilefu's cancer research today.


5. When you look five years into the future, what do you hope to have accomplished?

The full realization of the power of light to visualize and eradicate cancer as we know it today. We have to keep our dreams going until we die. We must realize that everything we do, in terms of cancer therapy and light-based therapy, may be the key to the eradication.


6. What motivates you to keep pursuing the goal of eradicating cancer?

One life at a time. If we can save one life through our technology -- like our cancer-visualizing goggles for surgeons which can be used anywhere -- I would be really happy about that. My hope is that we come to the point where every corner in the world can have image-guided surgery capabilities. To make sure that the medical outcome is not going to be dependent on how rich or poor you are, that keeps me going. We have the ability to level the ground, allowing a person to get very good treatment independent of where they are, of who they are.

I hope to extend [my efforts] to Africa as soon as we have our prototypes.

WORLD VIEW: Achilefu speaks at the National Public Radio (NPR) Story Collider show last June.

7. What are you most excited to see in the future development of photonics?

I am thrilled by the notion that photons can form bond states, opening a window of opportunity to create "molecular photonic" states. This would revolutionize how we can deliver and store light.


8. What is your advice to others in the STEM community?

Technological advances provide opportunities to uncover new areas of light-based sciences in engineering, physical, biological, and medical sciences. This field of research is only limited by our imagination. Think big, and watch your efforts transform the world into a better place than you found it.


Don't miss Achilefu's SPIE BiOS Hot Topics presentation at Photonics West. His talk is titled, "Power of Light to See and Treat Cancer".



SPIE’s #FacesofPhotonics social media campaign connects SPIE members in the global optics, photonics, and STEM communities. It serves to highlight similarities, celebrate differences, and foster a space where conversation and community can thrive.

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