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New biophotonics center will apply state-of-the-art optical tools to medicine, biology
24 October 2002

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

Berkeley - Despite recent breakthroughs involving the use of light to treat and study disease, those techniques only scratch the surface of what is possible in the emerging field of biophotonics.

A new research effort aims to change all that. Scientists at 10 institutions around the country, including the University of California, Berkeley, announced today (Thursday, Oct. 24) a new Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology to accelerate the application of state-of-the-art optical tools to biology and medicine.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing $40 million over 10 years to establish the center at UC Davis, in collaboration with researchers from UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), UC San Francisco, Stanford University and other universities. An additional $12 million in matching funds from federal and state grants and private sources will bring total funding for the center to about $52 million.

"Biophotonics refers to the application of advanced optical technology to study biological processes," said Jay T. Groves, an assistant professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and one of the principal investigators with the center. "Light is an extremely powerful way of probing and manipulating things to find out what they do. The full potential of optical technology in biomedical applications is still largely untapped."

Lasers, for example, are widely used today in medicine and surgery, and the center hopes to spur the development of new applications

"Lasers are indispensable in a number of surgical specialties, from dermatology to oncology, and the development of new medical laser technologies and techniques offers tremendous opportunities to improve the practice of medicine further, from developing better sutures to treating osteoporosis," said James E. Boggan, professor of neurological surgery at the UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center and co-director of the center.

Researchers at the new center hope also to develop new technologies for detecting anthrax and other biological weapons, and new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Another goal is to develop new technology that will enable scientists and physicians to see what takes place in living cells and how the different components function in real time.

"Through the power of biophotonics and some of the new technologies that we're developing, we will be able to see the cell while it's living, talking and interacting with other cells around it," said Dennis Matthews, director of the new center and an expert on lasers and optics at LBNL.

Groves himself uses sophisticated optically coupled atomic force microscopes to manipulate individual cell membranes only two molecules thick, laser trapping to isolate and study proteins, and optical standing wave interferometry to record real-time movement of proteins in cell membranes.

"There is much more to light than an image," said Groves, who is part of UC Berkeley's Health Sciences Initiative, a broad-based collaboration among campus researchers to tackle some of today's major health problems. "Conventional microscopes use only a small fraction of the optical information from our samples - there is infinitely more we can do."

Thermal fluctuations

Thermal fluctuations in a membrane in contact with a second membrane, as occurs at a synapse between two cells. The topography was measured to nanometer precision with a technique called optical standing wave interferometry. Blue regions indicate spots where the two membranes are bound together and thus move the least. The real time motion, though seemingly random, reveals patterns in the molecules embedded in the membrane. Credit: Jay T. Groves and Yoshihisa Kaizuka/UC Berkeley

Groves' main interest is how cells recognize one another and communicate, which he thinks involves physical interactions as well as chemical signals. Because these interactions occur where two cell membranes touch, he has developed a way to study the real-time interactions at the interface between two cell membranes. Groves hopes to prove a hypothesis he and his collaborators have proposed over the last couple years, that physical contact between two membranes forces proteins embedded in the surface to form a pattern that the cell can read.

"We think that the cell reacts to the pattern it finds on its surface, rather than only counting how many proteins chemically bind to a ligand or receptor," he said. "As a pattern forms, it drags things around in the surface and probably forces a signaling cascade that influences the whole cell."

Optical standing wave interferometry allows Grove to map the topography of the region where two membranes touch and see the molecules moving around, with patterns emerging from among the thermal fluctuations. Using this "molecular sonar," he can see detail on the scale of nanometers, a size hundreds of times smaller than conventional optical microscopes can resolve. He hopes eventually to see predicted patterns forming, and to apply what he learns to signaling among cells of the immune system.

Figuring out how cells communicate has practical applications, Groves said. He has successfully attached membranes to silicon chips, providing a pillow on which cells can move and grow. One goal is to create biochips to sense disease-causing bacteria or viruses.

"Cells are better than any human-built device in sensing the environment, so let the cells tell us," he said. "First, though, we have to find out how to send signals to make the cell look for things we're interested in, and we must learn how to capture signals from these cells."

The center's major focus will be to collaborate with industry to accelerate biophotonics technology development and deliver this new technology into the hands of health-care providers. UC

Davis will be the West Coast hub for biophotonics research that business partners can use to make new, leading edge medical devices.

The biophotonics center was one of six science and technology centers established this year by the NSF. The other centers will use the money to explore areas such as space weather and water purification systems.