In medicine, the future is light

February 18, 2013
Levitated malaria-infected red blood cells, ready for laser diagnosis.

Light, together with artificial intelligence systems that deliver fast, accurate analysis, has the potential to reshape the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Dr Bayden Wood, of Monash University's School of Chemistry, is focusing on new ways to detect and analyse malaria, heart disease and cancer. The significance of this major project has been recognised by the Australian Research Council, which has awarded Dr Wood a Future Fellowship to support his work.

"It's all based on using light as a diagnostic tool in medicine," Dr Wood said.

"It combines cutting-edge technology and very high-powered computing systems. The diagnosis ultimately is made by a machine, so it is non-subjective."

Working with national and international collaborators, he is developing the use of infrared and laser light, and state-of-the-art spectroscopic instrumentation including the infrared beamline at the Australian Synchrotron, to detect the early presence of disease.

Malaria, for example, can be detected in blood at the initial stages of the parasite's life cycle by the way it scatters light.

Dr Wood wants to use only tiny amounts of blood for analysis and is investigating ways of using acoustic levitation to hold in space as they are analysed by laser. This sci-fi-sounding approach has the very practical benefit of providing a container-less environment in which lasers have access to the entire cell, with potential going beyond malaria diagnosis.

Another approach, this time reminiscent of Dr McCoy's tricorder in Star Trek, would involve passing a hand-held spectrometer over someone's skin.

"We would essentially be using light to go through the skin to diagnose the parasites," Dr Wood said.

By eliminating the need for , this would make diagnosing children easier, and reduce risks for health workers in areas with high rates of AIDS.

Such an approach could not be used for most cancers or heart disease, where tissue samples would be needed. But spectroscopy still offers many potential advantages: it is so sensitive to chemical cell changes that it can detect the cell changes that precede visible indications of cancer, allowing for earlier diagnosis. Greater accuracy in grading tumours and establishing surgical boundaries is another possibility with technology that gives resolution at the single-cell level.

Light also has potential use in determining the status of atherosclerotic plaques in valves and arteries, providing better information about when to operate on heart-disease patients.

Developing the complex algorithms and huge databases necessary for high-powered artificial intelligence systems that can recognise the spectral patterns indicating disease is another part of Dr Wood's research.

Results would be fed into the system for accurate analysis that would avoid such problems as human fatigue.

The network is being designed to improve with time.

"New data adds to the previous data so the system is self-evolving," Dr Wood said.

"It is all high-speed, rapid automated diagnosis that is removed from human subjectivity, and can be done anywhere in the world."

Commercialisation of his ideas depends on further research, and clinical studies.

Explore further: Star Trek Tricorder revisited: Toward a genre of medical scanners

Related Stories

Star Trek Tricorder revisited: Toward a genre of medical scanners

January 4, 2012
A hand-held scanner, reminiscent of the fictional Star Trek medical Tricorder, images blood vessels through the skin and projects a map onto the skin showing nurses exactly where to insert a needle. A pocket-sized device ...

Detecting malaria early to save lives: New optical technique promises rapid and accurate diagnosis

April 18, 2012
Correctly and quickly diagnosing malaria is essential for effective and life-saving treatment. But rapid detection, particularly in remote areas, is not always possible because current methods are time-consuming and require ...

Simple rapid diagnostic tests for malaria work well

July 6, 2011
When a person living in a malarial area gets a fever, health workers need to know the cause to make absolutely sure they give the right treatment. For many years in sub-Saharan Africa primary health workers have often assumed ...

High fever and evidence of a virus? Caution, it still may be Kawasaki disease

November 5, 2012
Clinicians should take caution when diagnosing a child who has a high fever and whose tests show evidence of adenovirus, and not assume the virus is responsible for Kawasaki-like symptoms. According to a new study from Nationwide ...

Recommended for you

Molecular hitchhiker on human protein signals tumors to self-destruct

July 24, 2017
Powerful molecules can hitch rides on a plentiful human protein and signal tumors to self-destruct, a team of Vanderbilt University engineers found.

New vaccine production could improve flu shot accuracy

July 24, 2017
A new way of producing the seasonal flu vaccine could speed up the process and provide better protection against infection.

Researchers develop new method to generate human antibodies

July 24, 2017
An international team of scientists has developed a method to rapidly produce specific human antibodies in the laboratory. The technique, which will be described in a paper to be published July 24 in The Journal of Experimental ...

A sodium surprise: Engineers find unexpected result during cardiac research

July 20, 2017
Irregular heartbeat—or arrhythmia—can have sudden and often fatal consequences. A biomedical engineering team at Washington University in St. Louis examining molecular behavior in cardiac tissue recently made a surprising ...

Want to win at sports? Take a cue from these mighty mice

July 20, 2017
As student athletes hit training fields this summer to gain the competitive edge, a new study shows how the experiences of a tiny mouse can put them on the path to winning.

'Smart' robot technology could give stroke rehab a boost

July 19, 2017
Scientists say they have developed a "smart" robotic harness that might make it easier for people to learn to walk again after a stroke or spinal cord injury.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.