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Powerful Laser Could Revolutionize Cancer Treatment
Nov 2004
ANN ARBOR, Mich., Nov. 19 -- Researchers at the University of Michigan (UM) have spent the last five years creating what is believed to be the world's highest-intensity laser. They call the $3 million machine Hercules (high-energy repetitive CUos laser system), and it could revolutionize the way cancer is treated.

The ultrafast laser pulse generated by the Hercules is 50 times more powerful than all the world's power plants combined, said Gerard Mourou, professor and director of the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Besides basic research, an important practical application for the laser is ion therapy used to treat cancer patients. Ion therapy is successful, but the particle accelerators used for the treatment are so big and expensive -- because they must generate huge amounts of power -- that treating the public is rendered impracticle.

This new type of laser-based accelerator relies on the increased speed of the particle by the enormous electric field of the laser accelerator, which is one million times larger than conventional ones. UM's laser can be used in compact particle accelerators, which would make the ion therapy more affordable and accessible. Only a handful of locations worldwide now offer the ion therapy, said Victor Yanovsky, assistant research scientist who designed the Hercules.

Ion therapy is the preferred method to treat cancer because it causes minimal collateral damage to neighboring tissues, unlike say, radiation therapy, which damages healthy as well as diseased areas.

The powerful, compact lasers use short pulses. The laser pulse developed at UM lasts only 30 femtoseconds, the time it takes for light to travel the distance of a blood cell. The pulse was focused on an area 1/100th of the width of a hair. UM researchers announced the development at the 2004 Lasers and Electro-Optics/International Quantum Electronics Conference in San Francisco in late May.

The research is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation FOCUS Physics Frontier Center.

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