A 20-year-old medical laser research program could be cut by the US Department of Defense unless members of Congress vote to save it. The Medical Free-Electron Laser program is a $16 million annual grants program managed by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. So far, the program has not been funded in the Pentagon’s budget, which went into effect Oct. 1.The program takes proposals from medical or scientific organizations for research using optical and laser technology in medicine and biology, with an emphasis on military applications. Proposals generally are directed toward developing or improving applications of lasers and other light sources in medicine, photobiology, surgery and related materials sciences.The program, which does have backers in the House and Senate, has supported five university-based centers as well as other researchers throughout the US. One of those universities is Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. David W. Piston, director of the Free Electron Laser Center at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, believes that the center’s research will be able to continue for up to another year but that, “if the program remains at a low level of funding, then it would certainly change its character a lot.” He indicated that a substantial budget cut could lead the Department of Defense to reduce the number of funded centers and believes that such a move would be irreversible. “Once the staff expertise is dismantled, it would be cost-prohibitive to rebuild it.” Piston added that, over the years, the Medical Free-Electron Laser program funding has fluctuated, so it could bounce back in future years.The House has approved spending $2 million for 2008, which will be discussed when the Senate addresses the issue this month. The Senate panel also has asked for a plan to address the research and its applications.