2015 is the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, and we should not keep X and gamma rays out of the party. Contrary to popular belief, light, at least from the physicist’s view, is much more than just the electromagnetic radiation that we see directly with our eyes. But even if we accept that light is the agent making objects visible, how could we deny a “VIP” pass to the party to the rays discovered by Roentgen in 1895? We should not forget that thanks to his X-rays we have managed to see beyond the visible surface of objects.
The power of light to improve the quality of life of people around the world — to heal them — is a key focus of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015 (IYL 2015).
“Light plays a vital role in our daily lives and is an imperative cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century,” according to the mission statement of IYL 2015. “It has revolutionized medicine, opened up international communication via the Internet, and continues to be central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of the global society.”
It’s hard to imagine but pulses of light can have a huge impact on the quality of life. Since the development of laser technologies, where light is used to heat a specific tissue and selectively destroy it, light has been used to treat millions children affected by disfiguring birthmarks such as congenital nevi (abnormal collection of pigmented cells) and port-wine stains (abnormal collection of blood vessels). The reason that light is so effective is that it can destroy only the cells or tissues that are targeted, while leaving the other healthy cells and tissues alone. These treatments are safe, effective and, in the correct hands, have no permanent side effects. Before selective laser treatments, surgery or radiation therapy were used, in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, children were still subjected to an outdated and dangerous treatment – radioactive phosphorus. A radioactive paste is applied to hemangiomas, which are a common skin growth in baby girls. This causes permanent scars, loss of skin pigment, destruction of hair and other normal skin structures, and an lifelong increase in the risk of skin cancers. Motivated by the desire to stop this dangerous practice and improve the lives of children, a group of Vietnamese and US physicians, namely Dr. Hoang Minh of the University of Medicine and Pharmacy of Ho Chi Minh City, Dr. Rox Anderson, Dr. Martin Mihm and Dr. Thanh-Nga Tran of Harvard Medical School, Dr. J. Stuart Nelson of the University of California, Irvine, and Dr. Thuy Phung of Texas Children’s Hospital, came together in 2009 to create the Vietnam Vascular Anomalies Center (Vietnam VAC), a non-profit organization dedicated to the use of light technologies to treat children with disfiguring birthmarks. Our goal was to create a permanent local clinic with modern laser and medical therapies, and to train physicians in Vietnam in the principles of safe and effective laser practices.
In the past, when people would ask me what I do for a living, I would answer with ‘I’m a laser plasma research physicist’. It would often result in a blank stare and the conversation would then lead in the direction of ‘but what does that mean?’ and ‘oh it must be too complicated for me to understand’. I found that describing myself as a physicist was too daunting for most people. This is one of the reasons that I am so active in science communication, for I’d really like there to be a day that introducing myself as a research physicist is as normal or accepted as saying I am a lawyer, a nurse or a teacher. Until then, I’m dedicated to taking a different approach, one that is inviting and not intimidating.
I now say that I work with the most powerful lasers in the world to design new technology that helps to solve really important challenges that we face, such as where we’ll get our energy sources from in the future and how we can use technology to beat the trickiest and most widespread of diseases, such as cancer. My job is to bring research to reality and figure out the physics needed for tomorrow’s technology.
From newborns to the elderly, people around the world are treated everyday using technology rooted in optics and photonics.
By harnessing the power of light to understand and heal disease, we are able to continue to develop new ways to improve people’s lives. In this chapter of The Healing Power of Light, we focus on neonatal jaundice as a simple case of how light can help us to see and treat disease in the most vulnerable infants.