Building better mousetraps

In 1978, when my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer, her options were limited. The state-of-the-art in breast-cancer detection at the time was self-examination and mammography (much the same as today—although of course the technology has improved dramatically). As a result, her cancer was not caught early—which meant that, treatments being what they were back then, I watched her endure a double mastectomy, radiation treatments that burned and scarred her skin, and chemotherapy that caused all of her hair to fall out and her tiny body to pack on 40 lbs as she struggled to find something, anything, to ease the never-ending nausea.

Fast forward 20 years to 1998. I am sitting in a session at the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) meeting and one of the presenters, a practicing physician, tells the roomful of his colleagues that “90% of the time when a patient walks into my office I have no idea what is wrong with them.” Surprisingly, as I looked around the room, every head was nodding in agreement. I was floored. Call me naïve, but I could not believe that these well-educated, well-paid, dedicated individuals apparently didn’t know much more than I did about what was wrong with me when I came to them looking for answers or cures.

The medical community has clearly made tremendous strides in the 30 years since my mother first began battling her illness—a fight she ultimately lost—and in the decade since I sat in that darkened AAD meeting room. In the past five years especially, biomedical lasers and optics have brought amazing advances to the way disease is detected, diagnosed, and treated. Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy are playing a major role in this evolution, and recent advances in these technologies are providing even more clues to the ways diseases develop and manifest themselves. In fact, Joe Lakowicz—a true pioneer in the field of fluorescence spectroscopy (see p. 20)—believes the emerging field of plasmonics is poised to overcome some of the current technological barriers in fluorescence imaging, opening new doors to our understanding of disease and disease processes.

In addition, developments in infrared, near-infrared, and Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy are taking these techniques out of the research laboratory and into more practical clinical applications. According to a report from Global Industry Analysts (San Jose, CA), research efforts are currently focused on the development of noninvasive near-IR techniques to probe the hemodynamics of tissue samples in vivo and to explore the use of these techniques for blood delivery for injured tissues.

Another emerging analytical technique—Coherent anti-Stokes Raman-scattering (CARS) microscopy—was the subject of our most recent webcast, presented by Sunney Xie, professor of chemistry at Harvard University and a leading proponent of CARS and its many applications (see Prof. Xie’s hour-long overview of how CARS works and the advantages it brings to brain-tumor imaging and metabolite analysis is yet another indication of the many ways in which optical instrumentation is changing the standard of medical care today.

I am sure my mother, a nurse for nearly 40 years, would whole-heartedly approve.

Kathy Kincade
Editor in Chief

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