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Biophotonics poised to make major breakthroughs in medicine

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Posted March 10, 2015

Engineers and scientists collaborate with industry to realize the potential of light waves in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, and much more

Imagine having the ability to manipulate light waves in order to see through a skull right into the brain, or being able to use lasers to diagnose a bacterial infection in a matter of minutes. At the Center for Biophotonic Sensors and Systems (CBSS) at Boston University, you might say that technologies enabling these abilities and many others are “coming to light.”

While most efforts to understand the brain focus on new technologies to magnify small anatomical features, engineers at the MIT-based Center for Brains, Minds and Machines have found a way to make brains physically bigger. The technique, which the researchers call expansion microscopy, uses an expandable polymer and water to swell brain tissue to about four and a half times its usual size, so that nanoscale structures once blurry appear sharp with an ordinary confocal microscope. Image credit: Ed Boyden, Fei Chen, Paul Tillberg

While most efforts to understand the brain focus on new technologies to magnify small anatomical features, engineers at the MIT-based Center for Brains, Minds and Machines have found a way to make brains physically bigger. The technique, which the researchers call expansion microscopy, uses an expandable polymer and water to swell brain tissue to about four and a half times its usual size, so that nanoscale structures once blurry appear sharp with an ordinary confocal microscope. Image credit: Ed Boyden, Fei Chen, Paul Tillberg

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), mechanical engineer Thomas Bifano and his colleagues are developing optical microscopes that can image deep into biological tissue, helping scientists observe molecular-scale activity. Their goal is to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

The research is multidisciplinary. For example, virologist John Connor is working on a method to tag and fingerprint viruses, such as Ebola, using a tag that responds to a certain wavelength of light. Chemist Larry Ziegler and his team are working with a company called BioTools to develop a test that uses lasers to diagnose a bacterial infection accurately and quickly. Biomedical engineer Xue Han is attaching light-sensitive proteins from algae to neurons in the brain to observe, and even control, certain brain activity with the hope of better understanding Parkinson’s disease.

CBSS is a joint venture of Boston University and the University of California, Davis. Funding comes from the NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) program and industry partners to investigate fundamental research questions that are relevant to multiple technology sectors. Bifano says he expects much of the center’s research will move from the lab into the field within five to 10 years.

Source: NSF

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