SAN FRANCISCO – To recognize his pioneering work in biomedical optics and ultrafast laser spectroscopy, SPIE presented Robert Alfano, distinguished professor of physics at City College of New York, with the first Britton Chance Biomedical Optics Award during the BiOS conference at Photonics West.
Some of Alfano’s work has focused on using light to perform noninvasive optical biopsies that reveal molecular information on the spot. The techniques can eliminate the wait for test results and reduce the physical trauma of surgery, since there is no need to remove tissue unless cancer is found.
“This field was nonexistent before 1984. That’s when we discovered you could use the colors of light to detect cancer,” Alfano said. “When you shine a little light on the tissue, it glows.”
He found that different combinations of molecules on healthy and cancerous samples produced specific spectral emissions when excited by a laser. “The colors of the emissions are different. If the molecules are good, you get one glow; if they’re bad, you get another.”
“It’s like a fingerprint,” he added. “In that glow is all the information you need about the molecules that are there.”
In 1991 Alfano and his colleagues extended their early work using Raman scattering, which doesn’t rely on fluorescence and has higher resolution and sharper spectral lines to detect differences between cancerous, precancerous and normal tissue. More recently, his lab has been refining cancer detection using Stokes shift spectroscopy, which combines absorption and fluorescence for a higher degree of accuracy.
Alfano also co-discovered the supercontinuum ultrafast white light source, among other achievements recognized by the award, which spans from the visible to the near-infrared part of the light spectrum. The discovery enabled research resulting in two Nobel Prizes. The winner of the chemistry Nobel in 1999 used the supercontinuum to monitor chemical reactions. Winners of the 2005 Nobel Prize in physics tapped it to create the most accurate clock in existence. Others, Japanese researchers in particular, are using it in communications to boost available channels and bandwidth into the terabits-per-second range.
Dr. Katarina Svanberg of Lund University in Sweden, a past president of SPIE, presents Dr. Robert Alfano with the Britton Chance Award for Biomedical Optics during the BiOS portion of Photonics West. Courtesy of SPIE.
He was instrumental in the founding of the BiOS symposium and has published more than 700 papers; he also holds 108 patents and has been cited more than 11,000 times. He has served as a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Biomedical Optics since the journal’s founding in 1996, and he long contributed to Photonics Media’s publications as an editorial advisory board member.
His most recent achievement was the approval of a patent for a pill-size cancer detection device. But there’s more to come. “Someday,” he said, “I want to have a cell phone to diagnose cancer.”
In his acceptance speech at the Photonics West event, Alfano credited Britton Chance and others for their inspiration and contributions to the field. “Britton Chance was the real giant,” he said. “Everything is built on giants – it’s not done alone. But Britton was one of those guys that did it alone.”
Chance pioneered the field of biomedical optics and contributed to a wide range of fields, including the identification and functioning of enzyme-substrate compounds, and made advancements in breast cancer diagnostics, radio-frequency electronics, spectroscopy for noninvasive clinical diagnosis, and other areas.
“Brit Chance’s research, training and leadership have helped fuel the growth of biomedical optics and biophotonics throughout the world,” said Bruce Tromberg, director of the Beckman Laser Institute at the University of California, Irvine, and a longtime colleague of Chance. “His lifelong passion for measuring and understanding physiology and metabolism using light has inspired our community for decades.
“More than any other individual, Brit brought together people and ideas that spanned across disciplines, creating a special spirit of creativity, innovation and enthusiasm that has characterized the field of biomedical optics.”