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Friday, August 5, 2011

Research in Biophotonics: Big Picture

During the first several weeks of my RET program, I had the privilege of working on materials for the summer challenge program with our group’s research leader, Prof. Altug. This is always a great learning experience for me, and the chance to get to see her perception of developments within the field of photonics is invaluable – it’s really like being on safari with an expert guide. In the latter half of my time there, I got to be involved with the research end of the business, and was able to get to know a couple of graduate student members of her team as I participated in their research. Here, Alp checks out the result of some work he's done on his chips, while Serap waits to check on hers.

If you’ve followed the last entry about beating the diffraction problem, then you know that one of the keys to ultrasensitive detection of molecules is to focus light right where it needs to be. To do this, members of the Altug group, like Alp and Serap, have tried out many different designs for tiny antennae that can work this particular magic. Participating in this process was really educational on a couple of levels. Most importantly, everyone that I spent time with works incredibly hard at understanding each step of what they’re doing. Building and testing these tiny devices takes a few days at least, and everything is done along each step of the way to verify what’s been done. What I saw first-hand was a great example of how science really works - anyone who would ever doubt the honesty or ability of the people that I worked with just hasn’t seen these folks work up close.

So here’s the big picture: right now, screening for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many cancers is a hit and miss kind of deal. For example, breast cancer screens may miss what’s going on as much as 10% of the time. While there are some amazing new medicines out there right now that can work if the diseases are caught early, the tests that will tell you if you have the disease are still expensive and don’t work that well. The trick then, is to find which molecules will definitely mean that a particular disease is present or isn’t present.

Here’s a brand new one that seems to work: Alzheimer’s disease seems to be closely tied with a particular protein. In order to understand how the disease is working, what researchers would like to do would be to get sensing equipment actually inside of people who are developing the disease. That way, we’ll be able to really peel apart how the disease is operating, and know for certain if the biomarker is a clear indicator. And that’s another big aspect of Prof. Altug’s research – building better sensors so that researchers can speed up and improve their quest to exactly pinpoint the chemicals that are doing the dirty work in some of the nastiest diseases human beings can get.

Next: One little slice of the pie.

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