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Cancer-fighting laser born at university space institute

Ashley N. Rice,

TULLAHOMA, Tenn. – A new technique harnesses the power of femtosecond lasers to seek, acutely map and noninvasively destroy cancerous tumors, and it could especially benefit brain cancer patients.

Developed by scientists at the Center for Laser Applications at the University of Tennessee Space Institute, the laser focuses on a specific region to find and destroy tumors.

“Using ultrashort light pulses gives us the ability to focus in a well-confined region and the ability for intense radiation,” said Christian Parigger, an associate professor of physics. “This allows us to come in and leave a specific area quickly so we can diagnose and attack tumorous cells fast.”

After the cancerous area is precisely targeted, the intensity of the laser radiation can be turned up to irradiate, or burn off, the tumor. This method has the potential to be more exact than current techniques – and to be performed as an outpatient procedure.

“Because the femtosecond laser radiation can be precisely focused both spatially and temporally, one can avoid heating up too many other things that you do not want heated,” Parigger said. “Using longer laser-light pulses is similar to leaving a lightbulb on, which gets warm, and can damage healthy tissue.”

The new technology can be especially useful for treating brain cancer patients because it can noninvasively permeate thin layers of bone, such as the skull, and help define a targeted treatment strategy for persistent cancer.

It overcomes the restrictions posed by radiation treatments that damage portions of healthy brain tissue, and also could overcome the limitations of photodynamic therapy that have limited its acceptance and replace surgical options that are unable to remove all carcinogenic tissue.

“If you have a cancerous area such as in the brain, the notion is if you see something and take care of it, it won’t spread,” Parigger said. “This treatment overcomes difficulties in treating brain cancer and tumors. And it has the promise of application to other areas as well.”

The team is working with the University of Tennessee Research Foundation to bring the technology to market.

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