Comment Physics World  June 2019

The rise (and rise, and rise) of biophotonics

Scope for progress. (Manfred Türke)

“The use of photonics to diagnose and treat medical conditions is one of the most exciting developments in the field.”

The quotation comes from Nigel Perry, chief executive of the UK’s Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), and it’s fair to say that he was preaching to the converted when he said it. Perry was addressing an audience at the March 2019 opening of CPI’s National Healthcare Photonics Centre, which is designed to help companies and academic research groups translate photonics ideas into clinical applications. His listeners certainly didn’t need to be persuaded that such work is beneficial.

Even so, it seemed to me that Perry’s comment summed up a trend. A decade ago, life-sciences-oriented talks were a relative rarity at gatherings of optics experts. During the annual Photonics West conference, for example, such presentations were confined to a separate session held before the main event, and the associated BIOS exhibition felt small in comparison to the sprawling trade show that followed.

These days, Photonics West’s BIOS exhibition hums with activity. Talks and posters containing beautifully detailed images of eyes, brains, and assorted viscera are increasingly common even at non-specialist events. In 2014, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to the (physicist) inventors of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy, which is mostly used to study living systems. Four years later, the physics Nobel prize was shared by developers of two other techniques – optical tweezers and chirped-pulse amplification – with important applications in biomedical research and eye surgery.

The trend is also apparent in this Physics World Focus on Optics & Photonics. The cover shows a section of mouse brain imaged using a novel optical method called Airy beam light-sheet microscopy. Inside, you’ll find an interview with the CPI’s healthcare photonics lead and a report on a pan-European effort to develop new optical methods for diagnosing oesophageal cancer.

Of course, there are exciting developments elsewhere in the field, too. The prospect of using photons instead of electrons to transfer information within data centres holds great promise for faster, more efficient computing, and better techniques for making silicon photonics devices will help accelerate development. Years of painstaking work on new types of blue and green lasers are also starting to pay off, with likely applications in consumer electronics and data storage. And because optics and photonics are “enabling technologies” for a whole range of scientific endeavours, important advances could arise from any one of these areas. That, too, seems like an exciting development.