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Biomedical Optics & Medical Imaging

Biophotonics Revolution

SPIE Fellow and Optics East symposium chair Tuan Vo-Dinh leads research in many areas of biophotonics.

From oemagazine August 2004
31 August 2004, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200408.0011

"One of my goals is to try to apply photonics to develop advanced technologies to protect the environment and improve human health." —Tuan Vo-Dinh

Medical diagnostics and cancer detection, biosafety and homeland security, quantum physics and modern art—what do these things have in common? They all converge in the life of SPIE Fellow Tuan Vo-Dinh.

"We are in a very exciting period of science, because there is a convergence of so many technologies," says Vo-Dinh. "I would say this is a scientific revolution. If you ask me, this is the most exciting time in scientific history. It is incredible."

This confluence of technology is evident in Vo-Dinh's research. His work spans and connects several fields, including biophotonics, biochemistry, nanobiotechnology, environmental health, and homeland security. "One of my goals is to try to apply photonics to develop advanced technologies to protect the environment and to improve human health," he says.

Tuan Vo-Dinh with the Biomedical Photonics Handbook. Vo-Dinh edited this comprehensive tome on the latest research and applications in biomedical photonics, co-published by CRC Press and SPIE Press.

Originally from Vietnam, Vo-Dinh received a scholarship from the Vietnamese government in the mid-1960s to study engineering abroad. He began pursuing physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and then went on to earn a PhD in biophysical chemistry from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (known as ETH) in Zurich. Not long after, Vo-Dinh accepted an offer to join the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL; Oak Ridge, TN) in 1977 and he has been there ever since.

In the 1980s, Vo-Dinh's work with synchronous luminescence led to its use in many applications, including a simple and cost-effective way to detect carcinogens and disease in humans. He also developed room temperature phosphorescence for use in a passive personnel dosimeter designed to detect potentially toxic organic chemicals in work and home environments, which earned him his first of six R&D 100 Awards.

Vo-Dinh received his second R&D 100 Award in 1987 for developing a fiber-optic fluroimmunosensor device that found its place in a wide variety of biochemical and clinical applications. Vo-Dinh and his team have also developed laser-induced fluorescence that allows in vivo cancer diagnosis without biopsy. He developed surface-enhanced Raman technology to devise novel techniques for gene diagnostics and optical data storage that earned two other R&D 100 Awards.

More recently he has focused on biosensor and biochip systems. He has developed an integrated multifunctional biochip that detects "ultratrace" levels of protein and gene fragments of bacteria, viruses, and carcinogens in complex biological systems. Vo-Dinh says the biochip systems have much potential in proteomics and genomics applications. Specifically, he sees the biochip as a rapid diagnostic tool at a physician's office as well as a practical, inexpensive screening tool in the field for environmental pathogens and for homeland security applications.

"Being in a national lab, of course, some of our projects have dual applications," he says. "Like the biochip technology can be used to detect not only anthrax disease but also pathogens from terrorism. It can also be used as a warning system for homeland defense applications. Our goal is to do fundamental research to develop new technologies, but because we work at new technology, usually they are broad-based platform systems that can be applied to many applications."

Delving into the realm of nanotechnology, Vo-Dinh and his ORNL team have developed a new generation of nanobiosensors and nanoprobes for in vivo monitoring of biochemical processes in a living cell. The new technology allows researchers to probe a living cell without destroying it. They recently demonstrated a nanobiosensor with a fiber-optic probe just 40-nm wide, which can detect in real time molecular signals in a single cell treated with a cancer drug.

"When you destroy cells to study them, you can't obtain the dynamic information from the whole live cell system," explains Vo-Dinh. "You get only pieces of information. Nanobiosensor technology provides a means to preserve a cell and study it over time within the entire cell system."

Vo-Dinh has received numerous awards for his groundbreaking work, including both ORNL's Distinguished Scientist of the Year Award and the Director's Award in 2003, as well as Battelle Memorial Institute's Distinguished Inventors Award and the Tennessee Inventors Association's Inventor of the Year Award. He is especially active with SPIE. In addition to serving as symposium chair for Optics East 2004 (see sidebar), Vo-Dinh has chaired dozens of SPIE conferences and sessions.

Outside of work, Vo-Dinh's interests lie in philosophy, literature, music, and art. "During my travels one thing I enjoy is visiting art museums all around the world. I very much enjoy modern art. I just got back from Barcelona and Madrid, and they have wonderful museums on [Joan] Miró and [Salvador] Dali."

In the book Biomedical Photonics Handbook, Vo-Dinh discusses factors that led to the development of biophotonics, one of which was the quantum theory revolution. In another convergence of his interests, Vo-Dinh notes that quantum theory influenced many fields, including art.

He writes: "It was no coincidence that, during the quantum revolution in science, Cubist and Surrealist art abolished realistic shapes referenced in fixed space and fixed time. Pablo Picasso's renderings of the human face with their multifaceted perspectives often reflected the dual nature of reality; Salvador Dali's vision of melting clocks evoked the elasticity of a relativistic time. Henry Moore's sculptures reshaping the physical form of the human body marked a departure from geometric forms and Joan Miró's paintings often instilled a feeling of cosmic interrelationship of space-time of the new physics."

Go East Young Man

Optics East 2004, co-located with ITCom, is shaping up to be a thriving event, with nearly 1100 abstracts submitted and more than 100 exhibitors expected. The symposium will be held 25-28 October in Philadelphia, PA, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

"Compared to last year there is tremendous growth, and we are very excited," says Tuan Vo-Dinh, symposium chair.

There will be several special events during the week, including an ITCom plenary session and two workshops; plenary speakers each day focusing on nanotechnology, nanophotonics, and nanosensors; a university program featuring the optics programs in the region; and a pharmaceutical industry program that will represent the fast-growing number of companies involved in drug discovery and manufacturing from the mid-East Coast to the Northeast.

Vo-Dinh says one of the goals for Optics East is to establish it as a premier symposium for cutting-edge technology areas such as nanotechnology. As the symposium changes location each year, the program and special events will change to take advantage of the specific specialties of each region.

"Optics East in Philadelphia is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the strengths of the East Coast industrial base and well-known academic and technology center," says event coordinator Marilyn Gorsuch, "but it will be a truly international event, with speakers and participants coming from around the world."

In addition to Optics East 2004, Vo-Dinh has been active with other SPIE events, most notably chairing many sessions and conferences at Photonics West. "Being involved in conferences is very time consuming but very rewarding because you see yourself helping make the link between research and applications," he says. "This is also where you meet colleagues and friends who share the same vision."