Laser Device Zaps Single Cancer Cells

A prototype laser system and microscope creates tiny bursts of light that sear individual cancer cells into oblivion, perhaps opening the way for more thorough surgeries for cancer, epilepsy and other conditions. "You can remove a cell with high precision in 3-D without damaging the cells above and below it," said mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Adela Ben-Yakar at the University of Texas at Austin. "And you can see, with the same precision, what you are doing to guide your microsurgery."

She developed the experimental "micro-scalpel" for more precise destruction of a variety of unhealthy biological materials, including small tumors of the vocal cords, cancer cells left behind after the removal of solid tumors, individual cancer cells scattered throughout brain or other tissue, and plaque in arteries.

 Her research is described in the journal Optics Express. Ben-Yakar and her research associates adapted a femtosecond (one-quadrillionth of a second) laser system and microscope, which had already been developed for LASIK eye surgery, into a cell zapper. The new system has a thin, flexible probe to focus the laser pulses. And the team created a unique fiber-optic cable able to carry the powerful pulses from the femtosecond laser, along with a new cable-transmission technology.

Ben-Yakar is also looking into using nanoparticles (ultra-small particles) to focus laser light on targeted cells. In a study published last year, she showed that gold nanoparticles can work like microscopic magnifying lenses, boosting by 10 times the destructive light energy that reaches cells.

"If we can consistently deliver nanoparticles to cancer cells or other tissue that we want to target, we would be able to remove hundreds of unwanted cells at once using a single femtosecond laser pulse," Ben-Yakar said. "But we would still be keeping the healthy cells alive while photo-damaging just the cells we want, basically creating nanoscale holes in a tissue."


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