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Using Ultrafast Lasers to Catch Cancer

Marcos Dantus uses ultrafast lasers to study microscopic chemical and biological interactions that are impossible to observe with any other tool. Ultrafast lasers have pulse durations that are shorter than one millionth of a millionth of a second, which is faster than atoms can actually move. Breakthroughs in ultrafast lasers have led to two Nobel Prizes, one of which is related to Dantus’ Ph.D. research. This laser expertise fuels exploration in the Dantus Research Group.

“My research is motivated by solving practical applications,” Dantus said. “Especially if there’s an opportunity to save lives.”

The Dantus Research Group is working with iCER to develop a technology called coherence imaging. One of these developments — the optical biopsy — allows doctors to view biological samples in real time, enabling them to discover cancer in patients faster and less intrusively.

“Let’s say you go to the doctor and the doctor says, I don’t like this lesion, let me look at it under this new laser microscope,” Dantus said. “Ultrafast lasers can go deep through the layers to find out if it’s cancer, find out what kind is it, and see how far it’s progressed.”

Dantus says this could catch many types of cancer months before they could be discovered by using traditional invasive methods involving surgical biopsy.

“In the case of melanoma, which is a fast, progressive cancer, it can literally mean a life or death difference,” Dantus said. “Melanoma usually starts from the very top layers, so if it’s detected on time and removed on time, the prognosis is usually good. Biomedical imaging is one of the areas where we’re making a very big impact.”

iCER was used for processing the data that went into the first publication for this work. Other work includes developing adaptive optical systems for characterizing and compressing laser pulses, which enable these types of developments. Pulse compression of by a factor of 1 million has been demonstrated, meaning that Dantus’ research can achieve 1 million times more intensity with the same energy.

The Dantus Research Group has pioneered laser technology for unstained imaging and for standoff (chemical) detection of explosives. The group’s developments are among the leading world efforts, routinely collaborating with medical centers and agencies at the U.S. Department of Defense. Current projects include studying exotic chemical reactions and transformations, and exploring relativistic pulse compression to achieve high-efficiency conversion of femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a second) pulses into attosecond (one quintillionth of a second) pulses.

Dantus, who started developing new pulse compression methods in 2000, fought criticism at first for his radically new approach, but used those critiques to hone his research. By 2006, he had proven that his system was much more accurate than any other method available.

“It’s now 2016 and there isn’t anything like this,” Dantus said. “The students just come in and push the button and the processes are compressed automatically on any device. I think the record is now 3.8 femtoseconds.”

Xiaoxing (Adele) Han via the Institute for Cyber-Enabled Research (iCER)

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