WASHINGTON, Dec. 28, 2012 — A team of three IBM scientists will receive the US National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama for the development of excimer lasers for medical use.
The award, which recognizes the impact that excimer lasers have made in medical procedures such as lasik eye surgery, will be given personally by the president to James J. Wynne, Rangaswamy Srinivasan and Samuel Blum. This is IBM’s tenth National Medal of Technology and Innovation award.
IBM’s research on laser technology, begun in 1981 by this team, has shaped the course of surgical care. The excimer laser is well suited for delicate surgeries and has surpassed mechanical instruments such as the scalpel, which was not very precise, could leave the cornea permanently weakened, and required a long patient recovery time.
The key development leading to the replacement of mechanical instruments by excimer lasers took place in one of the firm’s laboratories shortly after a Thanksgiving turkey dinner more than 30 years ago.
“We wondered, if the excimer laser could so cleanly etch polymeric material, what would happen if we tried it on human or animal tissue?” Wynne said. “What really broke things open, after all the talk of what kind of tissue we would use, was that Sri brought his Thanksgiving turkey leftovers into the lab the day after Thanksgiving in 1981. He used the excimer laser at 193 nm to etch a pattern in whatever bone, cartilage or meat was on the tissue sample. I had this moment of eureka; we have a new form of surgery! By using the ultraviolet light of the excimer laser, we were getting an extremely clean cut, with no evidence of damage to the surrounding tissue.”
The team originally demonstrated this technology’s capabilities to the medical community by using quick pulses of ultraviolet light to cut a clean pattern into a human hair without burning the strand. This showed that the material could be removed through vaporization rather than burning, and appealed to doctors and patients because it left surrounding areas undamaged.
Obama will bestow the award during a special White House ceremony at a later date.
For more information, visit: http://www.ibm.com/us/en