BIOMEDICAL OPTICS: International congress lays the groundwork for biophotonics roadmap

Scientists, academicians, and representatives of government and industry spent several days discussing the future of biomedical optics at the first International Congress on Biophotonics (ICOB; Feb. 3–7; Sacramento, CA), sponsored by the NSF Center for Biophotonics Science & Technology (CBST; Davis, CA). Some 125 attendees from Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Germany, Australia, Taiwan, China, Canada, and the United States heard and gave presentations on key application and technology segments and participated in a number of breakout sessions designed to begin building a strategic roadmap for the future of biophotonics research, technology development, and education.

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Attendees learned about the major scientific achievements in three important areas of biophotonics: advanced microimaging; probes, sensors and assays; and clinical applications of biophotonics. In addition, they heard presentations about current and projected needs in key healthcare areas: cancer, infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, regenerative medicine, and neuroscience.

Prof. Brian Wilson of the University of Toronto gave a plenary talk on the use of photodynamic therapy to treat infectious diseases, providing a “nonantibiotic” treatment approach to bacterial infections.

Prof. Stefan Hell of the Max-Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry described how his stimulated emission depletion nonlinear microscopy techniques have opened the door to “nanoscopy.” Up to 80 frames/s, 20 to 30 nm resolution fluorescence nanoscopy is now available, and Leica will soon offer nanoscopes for sale. This level of resolution enables the study of intra- and extra-subcellular organism dynamics without the need for labels.

Neurobiologist Yves de Koninck of Laval University described his work on studying neuronal function and structure. He challenged the microscopy community to develop high-spatio-temporal microscopy techniques that can achieve high-resolution over large scale lengths (microns to millimeters) and capture images in 1 ms or less.

A representative from the U.S. Department of Defense made an impassioned plea for improved battlefield medical devices, noting that he believes biophotonics is the key to field-portable diagnostics.

Representatives from Olympus, Leica, Affymetrix, Semrock, and Invitrogen discussed products and strategies in their respective markets, with particular emphasis on what they are currently developing and what they need from the biomedical community to help them develop their next new products.

A panel of representatives from NIH, NSF, AFOSR, DoD, and similar agencies in Canada and the EU discussed their interest in creating new funding initiatives for biophotonics R&D.

“This was an unusual meeting in some respects because it wasn’t just a bunch of scientific talks,” says Dennis Matthews, director of the CBST and cochair (along with Wilson) of the ICOB. “There were key thematic areas and plenary speakers from these areas, but also speakers from industry, government, and academic research, plus panel discussions and breakout sessions. We made great progress in terms of the roadmap.”

Worldwide support

A clear message to come out of the ICOB is the need to focus biophotonics on some major challenges in bioscience and medicine, Matthews adds. In response to this need, a worldwide initiative, “Biophotonics for Life,” will likely be created as part of the group’s road-mapping efforts. According to Matthews, this initiative will focus resources on such medical challenges as noninvasive measurement of blood glucose, nonantibiotic treatment of infections, revolutionizing pathology by bringing lab diagnostics to the point-of-care, creating better methods of treating presbyopia, providing therapies for metastastic-level cancer, and bringing new methods to emergency medicine for rapid diagnosis and field-portable imaging.

Another important message from the ICOB was the need to develop funding initiatives that encourage large-scale international partnering on biophotonics. According to Matthews, international scientist exchange programs are readily available, but there will be new effort to create the equivalent of international biophotonics theme-based Centers of Excellence or Research Partnerships. A continuous path for funding of the translation of technology from bench to bedside was also identified as one of the single biggest barriers to creating new medical and bioscience devices and tools.

“Our technology readiness levels (TRL scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being ‘concept’ and 10 being ‘marketable device’) mostly fall victim to the ‘valley of death’ (TRL 3-7),” Matthews says. “There are many reasons for this, but mostly because there is no NIH-style government or private funding available for getting technology to the stage where it can be commercialized and doing so at entrepreneurial speed. The biophotonics community will now focus on developing initiatives to mitigate this substantial barrier to innovation.”

The ICOB also highlighted BiophotonicsWorld.org, a Web site recently launched by CBST and the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations to serve as a central resource for biophotonics tools, news, and information for researchers, students, teachers, and industry. According to Marco Molinaro, chief education officer at CBST, BiophotonicsWorld.org is rapidly evolving through a network of international partners and nodes designed to create an Internet portal and virtual community for biophotonics.

The next ICOB will be held in Canada in 2010.

–KK

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