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Engineering Better Health -2

Imagine a future . . .
where patients with suspected tumors are diagnosed in real time using much less invasive “optical biopsies.”


The interaction of light and biological molecules can yield important information about the health and functioning of living tissues. To lay the foundation for new medical diagnostic tools and therapies, NSF-ENG has teamed up with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to lead the Biophotonics Partnership Initiative, which supports development of technologies needed to make optical biopsies and other biomedical innovations a reality.

For instance, Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum and her team at the
University of Texas are developing optical technologies for detecting early-stage cancer and other diseases. Clinical trials of her techniques for diagnosing early-stage cervical cancer inside the body (rather than in a
smear on a microscope slide) have shown that these techniques can be more effective and cost-effective than existing diagnostics.

NSF-ENG is also supporting the collaboration of Professor Ming Wu of the University of California at Los Angeles and Professor James Fujimoto of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create new methods for ultrahigh-resolution internal body imaging. The team is working to develop novel microscanning devices that would enable cellular-level imaging via instruments used with standard hospital endoscopes. The system they envision would make it possible to perform real-time guidance of biopsies and improve accuracy and sensitivity in diagnosing early-stage cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

Fujimoto also receives NSF-ENG funding to address one of the key obstacles limiting widespread clinical and research applications of some advanced photonic imaging technologies: the lack of compact, low-cost ultrashort pulse lasers. He has developed a laser with record-low pump-power requirements, which will allow ultrashort pulse lasers to be built at 1/3 to 1/5 of their previous cost. Fujimoto’s technology is currently in clinical use at the New England Eye Center.

Supported by NSF-ENG, researchers at UCLA and MIT are developing a microscanning device that promises to enable ultrahigh-resolution, real-time internal body imaging (above, top) for improved cancer diagnosis (an “optical biopsy”) using a standard hospital endoscope (above).

Unprecedented, ultrahigh-resolution biophotonic images from the New England Eye Center show a normal human retina (left) and a diseased retina with a macular hole (right). New laser technologies developed by James Fujimoto of MIT will enable improved diagnosis and treatment of retinal disease. This high-resolution optical imaging technology could potentially be used for detection of early-stage skin cancers, oral cancers, and cancers in the lining of the digestive track.

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