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SPIE Professional April 2011

Priming the Biophotonics Pump

Photonics for a Better World: Biophotonics researchers get help with technology transfer.
image of cancer from PWS technique

Three aspiring biophotonics entrepreneurs working on potentially life-saving cancer and malaria detection techniques will get help advancing their ideas into full-scale business plans as winners in the Biophotonics Startup Challenge at SPIE Photonics West in January.

The three were among 16 biophotonics researchers vying for sponsorship from Newport Spectra-Physics to attend the University of California, Davis, Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy. SPIE organized the event, in which the researchers pitched their ideas to a panel of judges, and is providing travel stipends for the three winners.

The five-day academy will help them construct a business case, analyze markets, develop a network of connections to drive their new ventures, and ultimately help improve our lives through photonics.

Indeed, all the proposed technologies at the Biophotonics Startup Challenge, ranging from optical drug-delivery systems to liquid-crystal pupils for prosthetic eyes to wearable muscle oxygenation sensors, are fresh evidence of the many ways that photonics can be applied to create a better world.

Disease detection from cheek cells

The volunteer judges selected Hariharan Subramanian's simple cheek swab for early screening for lung cancer -- for which there is no existing screening method beyond a traditional biopsy -- for first prize.

Subramanian is a research associate at Northwestern University (USA). He and his Illinois colleagues, who include Hemant Roy of NorthShore University HealthSystem and Vadim Backman, director of the Biophotonics Lab at Northwestern, have developed the highly accurate test based on partial-wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy. The non-invasive test is sensitive enough to identify cancer cells well before normal histopathological methods can because it focuses on smaller-than-microscopic disturbances at the nano level.

Subramanian, who co-authored and presented "Optical screening for lung cancer using epithelial cells obtained from buccal mucosa" at Photonics West, says the test could be readily used within the primary care setting.

  Cheek cells
The PWS technique for detecting lung cancer doesn't require the examination of the tumor itself. Top two rows are non-cancerous cheek cells from three different people. Mostly blue coloration in the PWS images (second row) indicates normal, or negative for lung cancer. The bottom two rows show cheek cells from three other patients. Red coloring in the bottom-row images is a marker for lung cancer. Images courtesy Hariharan Subramanian

"PWS is a paradigm shift, in that we don't need to examine the tumor itself to determine the presence of cancer," Subramanian says.

"The potential for this approach to change detection of lung cancer, and thus save lives, is tremendous," adds Duke University's Adam Wax, one of the judges.

Subramanian notes that there is a huge need to screen for lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, with five million possible patients requiring diagnosis. The disease is already advanced by the time most lung-cancer patients develop symptoms. He points out that the market for such a screening method could be worth $5 billion -- similar to the existing market for cervical cancer screening.

Backman and Roy have previously used PWS to assess the risk of colon and pancreatic cancers, also with promising results. And the researchers have an exclusive license for the technology, which is based on two approved patents.

Tactile imaging system

The second- and third-place winners are also hopeful of learning how to further develop and fund their photonics innovations for a better world.

In second place, SPIE Member Chang Won of Temple University (USA) earned a place at the entrepreneurship academy to develop a business plan for a novel system for detecting malignant breast tumors using tactile imaging. The system is based on total internal reflection principles and can pick up signs of early-stage malignancies at a depth of 3 cm.

His target market is small clinics in China, India, and other countries where hospitals and imaging centers are sparsely located.

 Judges for Biophotonics Startup Challenge
Judges for the Biophotonics Startup Challenge were (seated left to right): SPIE members Adam Wax (Duke University), Linda Smith (Ceres Technology), and Brandon Yee (Daylight Solutions), and Sergey Egorov (Del Mar Photonics and Tech Coast Angels). Aspiring biophotonics entrepreneurs (standing, left to right) are: Hariharan Subramanian, Chang Won, Natan Shaked, Babak Shadgan, Jerome Lapointe, Yann Cotte, Michelle Xu, and Yuan Luo.
Interferometric microscope

The third place at the academy went to SPIE member Natan Shaked, a post-doc researcher at Duke University (USA) who has developed a small interferometric microscope that can be used to detect diseases such as malaria. The "InCH" microscope has an interferometric chamber and a compact and portable quantitative phase instrument for label-free cell imaging.

The microscope provides better imaging than either brightfield or fluorescence microscopy, Shaked says. The portable instrument, which costs less than $500, could ultimately be integrated in a cell-phone-sized handset.

Other promising technologies

Honorable mentions at the Biophotonics Startup Challenge went to five others, four from Canada. Fourth- to eight-place finishers in order, were:

• Jerome Lapointe of École Polytechnique de Montréal (Canada) for an artificial eye that uses LCDs to simulate pupil reactions

• SPIE member Michelle Xu of University of Toronto (Canada) for silicon-based cancer sensors

• SPIE member Behnam Molavi of University of British Columbia (UBC) (Canada) for a wearable blood-oxygenation sensor for exercise training

• SPIE member and D.J. Lovell scholarship recipient Babak Shadgan of UBC for early diagnosis of acute compartment syndrome using near-IR spectroscopy

• SPIE member Yuan Luo of MIT (USA) for a real-time, 4D holographic imaging system

Aspiring biophotonics entrepreneurs

Other participants who pitched their ideas to the judges were:

• Myunghwan Choi of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) for optical drug-delivery system

• Yann Cotte of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) (Switzerland) for an optical device for systematic food inspection

• Amos Danielli of Washington University in St. Louis (USA) for magnetic modulation fluorescence biosensing for rapid detection of specific DNA and proteins at low concentrations

• Perry Edwards of Pennsylvania State University (USA) for nonscanning holographic coherent anti-Stokes Raman microscope

• Alexander Kalyanov of Saratov University (Russia) for a laser Doppler flowmeter

• Etienne Shaffer of EPFL for an optical device for early-stage cancer diagnostics

• Natlja Skrebova Eikje of MC Professional OÜ (Estonia) for skin applications development

• Jonghee Yoon of KAIST for optical control of urinary bladder contraction using femtosecond laser pulses

Entrepreneurship for a better world

The Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy at University of California, Davis, is a one-week, intensive program that brings grad students, postdocs, and faculty together with business leaders, financial analysts, intellectual property experts, and venture capitalists.

Attendees explore market opportunities surrounding their research, refine their presentation pitches, and receive feedback from biomedical industry experts about their plan to commercialize their work. A series of networking and mentoring sessions is included in the program.

"The network is the innovation" says Academy director Andrew Hargadon, the founding director for the Center for Entrepreneurship at UC Davis.

For more information: Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy

Blogging for a Better World

Articles in our Photonics for a Better World series and in a new blog highlight optics and photonics technologies that bring tangible gains to humanity.

Join the blog discussion celebrating the many ways that photonics are applied in creating a better world at PhotonicsforaBetterWorld.org.

Read more articles in the SPIE Professional series at spie.org/betterworld.

Do you have a story to tell about the work that you or colleagues do to make the world a better place? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201104.02

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