OTC News Archive

Rocket scientist’s laser scalpel targets individual cells

Med-tech : Health

Erin Biba, Wired magazine
November 24, 2008

Normal surgical lasers aren’t very precise. Heat from their pulses tends to build up and vaporize healthy tissue. That makes them lousy for delicate tasks like brain surgery, where all the tissue is, you know, important. So engineer Adela Ben-Yakar, an assistant professor at The University of Texas who cut her teeth in rocket science—designing supersonic engines for scramjets—decided to come up with a laser capable of vaporizing individual cells, one at a time.

Using a so-called femtosecond laser, her device emits ultrafast light pulses that don’t have enough time to damage surrounding tissue. While femtosecond lasers themselves aren’t exactly new—they’re standard gear for laser eye surgery—Ben-Yakar is the first to figure out how to make one small enough to be used inside a person. Her blaster fits in a 15mm surgical probe that shoots the laser’s light through a crystal fiber (similar to a fiber-optic strand).

Paired with another fiber for microimaging, it lets surgeons work through a small incision and burn off individual cells in places like the pituitary gland (normally accessed rather awkwardly through the nose) and the spinal cord, which is hidden behind bundles of sensitive neurons and axons.

“The laser turns the targeted cell into atomic dust,” Ben-Yakar says. And the surrounding tissue? Untouched. Not bad for a second career. We’re hoping her next project is a supersonic jet with a laser.

[ Wired ]