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Sheding light on the molecular interrelationships of our life

3rd March 2017
Enaie Azambuja

At the world’s leading trade fair LASER World of PHOTONICS (June 26–29, 2017 in Munich) exhibitors, application panels and symposiums will demonstrate just how closely medical progress is intertwined with photonics techniques. When today’s researchers embark on voyages of discovery, they eagerly enlist photons to transport themselves into miniature worlds. Photonics is ubiquitous when peering into living cells, neural brain processes or pathologically altered tissue.

Application-oriented Application Panels in Hall B2 and the European Conference on Biomedical Optics (ECBO 2017) being held in parallel with the trade fair address topical photonics trends in medical science and research. This includes deep tissue imaging.

Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) enables medical professionals to look a few millimeters below the tissue surface in real-time using infrared laser. The optical systems provide 3D scans with microscopic resolution without exposing patients to harmful radiation.

Lasers control brain functions

LASER 2017 will also shed light on a promising, young field of research: optogenetics. This uses laser to illuminate neural processes. To achieve this, researchers introduce special light-switchable proteins into areas of the brain.

The proteins enable them to use laser light selectively to control the ion flow within the neural network. Research is proceeding at breakneck speed. Brain functions and cognitive processes are proving increasingly amenable to being controlled to permit their systematic investigation.

Even the activities of individual neurons can be observed. Femtosecond lasers are being employed because they enable light manipulation even in deep brain areas. At the same time they deliver 3D live transmissions from the functioning brain by means of multiple photon stimulation.

Optical techniques assist with the diagnosis

Microscope and imaging technique resolution is advancing in tandem with progress in computer processor, software and light source performance. Thanks to these more profound insights medical research is increasingly knowledgeable about the origins of diseases and how to combat them.

In the development of new drugs as well, optical techniques provide more timely evidence of whether they work or not. Optical techniques also enable quicker diagnoses – for example to gain vital time in the fight against multi-resistant germs. In the medium-term, photonic diagnostics will pave the way for personalised medicine with therapies individually tailored to the patient.

Biochips, tolerable implants and minimally-invasive surgery

Nowadays, optical techniques play a key role in the development and fabrication of miniaturised biochips just as they do in the fabrication of perfectly customised, 3D scanned and 3D printed implants.

Thanks to accurate imaging and diagnostic techniques and miniaturised endoscopes, they provide doctors with minimally invasive insights into the patient’s body. Developments are proceeding apace. For example, in the field of multi-photon tomography, which is yielding three-dimensional insights into skin and eye tissue by means of femtosecond lasers.

To this end, the LASER exhibitor LASER JenLab GmbH is pushing ahead with a research project to harness the technique for diagnosing skin cancer or dangerous deterioration of the cornea within mere seconds.

If in the course of the optical diagnosis doctors determine that surgery is required, it is also performed using optical techniques. Examples include OP assistance systems, augmented or virtual reality, and lasers in lieu of manually guided scalpels.

Ophthalmologists in particular use lasers to measure and operate on eyes. The concentrated light beam is also used to machine corneal transplants with micron-level precision. You will find out more about the applications from the biophotonics and medical technology arenas at LASER World of Photonics 2017 in Munich from June 26–29.

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