Biophotonics Center Goes Interdisciplinary
Brent D. Johnson
In its 1998 report Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century, the National Research Council recommended that the National Science Foundation "increase its efforts in biomedical optics and pursue opportunities in this area aggressively."
The recipient of a $40 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, takes an interdisciplinary approach to researching and developing applications of biophotonics.
The Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, is one of several facilities to receive funding from the foundation that are dedicated to a multidisciplinary effort that combines education programs, knowledge transfer and biophotonics, all of which are of vital interest to the country.
The center previously was a US Department of Energy institution with a charter for studying laser interaction with tissue. In its latest incarnation, its research includes imaging and detection technology for investigating molecular mechanisms, photonics-based medical devices and computational biophotonics.
The emergence of scientific alliances between previously disparate fields such as optics, computer science and genetics represents a significant change in how research is conducted in the US. Denise Caldwell, the National Science Foundation's technical coordinator for the program, explained that the foundation is fostering multidisciplinary activities because that is where some of the most exciting new scientific discoveries are being made.
As a consequence, the culture at the center is more interconnected than insular, said program director Dennis Matthews. It may be more convenient and more familiar to work alone or in small groups, but the research at the center requires participation across a number of fields.
One of the challenges the institution faces is to put together an infrastructure with a critical mass of students and faculty, Matthews said. "Day after day, we have to reinvent ourselves." Fortunately, all of the major players in the current program already were working together.
Bill Goldstein, an associate director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said that it is important to develop these collaborations with the National Science Foundation. However, the relationship between the laboratory and the university has a long history. "This interaction is nothing new," he said. "We have historical ties going back to the founding of the laboratory with Edward Teller."
What is new is the application of materials and fiber optics to lasers that will make them broadly applicable for diagnosis and minimally invasive treatment. Goldstein believes that cancer diagnostics based on frequency-dependent reactions with tissue will have some immediate benefits for clinical practice.
"The technology has caught up with its promises," said Matthews, who is currently submitting proposals for a program leveraged by the National Institutes of Health to diagnose cancer. With the human genome mapped, there is a pressing need to develop the technology that can put that knowledge to use, he explained.
Matthews' current effort involves putting together technology showcases to help commercialize the program, with the goal of increasing funding from $52 million to $200 million.
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