When surgeons use metal scalpels to cut away harmful tissue, there is a risk of cutting healthy tissue. This risk is especially acute for operations on critical organs, such as brains and intestines. Now there is a laser “scalpel” that targets diseased or damaged tissue while leaving healthy tissue intact.
A team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin has developed a medical laser device that can fit onto endoscopes and send out powerful but incredibly brief pulses of light, reports the Optical Society of America. The pulses last only 200 quadrillionths of a second, so brief that healthy cells are untouched.
The researchers will present the device at the Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics in San Jose, CA, in early May. Adela Ben-Yakar of the University of Texas at Austin, the project’s principal investigator, says:
We are developing the next-generation clinical tools for microsurgery. [...] All the optics we tested can go into a real endoscope. The probe has proven that it’s functional and feasible and can be [manufactured] commercially.
The endoscope probe is thinner than a pencil and less than an inch long. The infrared light it emits penetrates up to one millimeter into living tissue, allowing surgeons to target individual cells or even smaller parts, such as cell nuclei. The device consists of three parts: commercial lenses; a specialized fiber to deliver the laser pulses from the laser to the microscope; and a 750-micrometer microelectromechanical scanning mirror.
The device could be used for eye surgery, repairing vocal cords or removing small tumors in the spinal cord or other tissues. Ben-Yakar’s group is collaborating on a project to treat scarred vocal folds with a probe tailored for the larynx and another to work on brain neurons and synapses.
This medical device has been tested on pig vocal cords and the tendons of rat tails. An earlier prototype was tested on human breast cancer cells. The first viable laser scalpel will still need at least five years of clinical testing before it receives approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use on humans.
Source: “Medical ‘Lightsabers’: Laser Scalpels Get Ultrafast, Ultra-accurate, and Ultra-Compact Makeover,” Optical Society of America press release, 4/23/12
Image by Ben-Yakar Group, University of Texas at Austin, used with permission.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.