Unexpected Applications of Light in Biomedical Science

Light continues to fascinate the scientific community. With such a broad set of applications often the only limit is the imagination. From Malaria through to manipulating individual cells light is currently turning up in the most unexpected places as a key enabling technology. In this article we are going to look at these unexpected uses of light in the field of biomedical science.

Light-based approaches can help fight Malaria. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Light-based approaches can help fight Malaria. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

First off no doubt you have heard of MRSA? Well microbial infection is an increasing problem, especially in the wake of antimicrobial resistance issues. The first unexpected and highly impact application of light we want to mention is based around using blue light to sterilise environments. Using light to decontaminate environments is actually nothing new – we have been using UV light to disinfect surfaces since the mid 20th century. UV light however has some safety issues so the recent advances in using violet LED light to sterilise hospital areas offers an exciting development in increasingly tougher fight against infectious agents. Extending the findings the researchers are looking to combine LED light sources to shift the light from violet to warm white. A warm white colour will mean this light based technology can operate in an ambient fashion without disrupting healthcare workers or patients in hospitals.

In keeping with a healthcare focus light has shown promise in helping end malaria. To put malaria in focus as a problem 3.2 billion people are at risk from this parasite, every minute a child dies due to the disease, and emerging parasite resistance to the anti-malarial treatment Artemisinin is a growing concern. The first light based approach to tackle malaria was attempted around 2005 when researchers used genetic modification to insert a gene to make male mosquito testes glow and another to make those males sterile. This meant researchers could use light as a way to sort sterile male mosquitoes from their normal unmodified counterparts. Researchers believe that releasing sterile mosquitoes in to the wild could be a means to reduce the mosquito population, as sterile males mating would leave females unable to produce offspring. A second, simpler, light based approach to combat malaria has also recently been gaining traction. LED bulbs that emit less ultraviolet and blue wavelengths of light attracted fewer insects than those that emitted more traditionally toned blue light. This suggests that LED lights could be tuned to produce less of the light spectrum that is attractive to insects like mosquitoes thus reducing their interaction with humans.

Printing 3D living tissues wouldn’t be amiss in any of the latest sci-fi films but start-up Bio-bot has created a desktop device that does just that. The Bio-bot 1 can print structures bioinks, blue LED light is used to cure the biomaterials rapidly so they maintain their structure without damaging the cells. Other forms of curing the biomaterials, such as pressure or UV light, would damage the living cells. Again we see light play an unexpected key role in enabling a cutting edge application.

Surgeons operating to remove cancerous tissues often face problems making a subjective decision to find where cancerous tissue ends and healthy tissue begins. The area around the cancerous tumour is called the margin and contains a mix of cancerous and healthy cells. If cancerous cells remain post operation there is a raised risk of tumours reappearing. Stephen Bopart from the university of Illinois led the development of a hand held probe that uses light to image tissue in real time. Cancerous cells and healthy cells scatter light in different ways meaning the probe can be used to quantitatively judge the margins around tumours during an operation.

Optogenetics enables researchers to target individual neurons in the brain to turn them on and off. Credit: Sashkinw/iStock.

Optogenetics enables researchers to target individual neurons in the brain to turn them on and off. Credit: Sashkinw/iStock.

Finally lets talk about manipulating neurons. Optogenetics is probably the most fascinating unexpected use of light we have heard about to date. Exposing light of a certain wavelength to cells in a living animals brain can directly influence its behaviour from triggering aggression to switching off appetite. How is this possible? In 2008 scientists found that light sensitive proteins from algae could be inserted into rats neurons to switch them on and off. Since then advances in science have coalesced to the point where Circuit Therapeutics are one of the first start-ups looking at implementing this technology as an alternative to pharmaceutical interventions

Biomedical science continues to make use of light in the most unexpected of ways to enable scientific breakthroughs across the board. We are excited to see what the next few years of photonics can enable when paired up with challenging problems within the biomedical sciences sector.

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