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Light as a tool for accurate diagnostics and therapy

  • Focus on biophotonics at LASER World of PHOTONICS 2022
  • Photonics fills a key role in the battle against the pandemic
  • The world’s leading trade fair brings together leading actors making progress in the life sciences driven by photonics

Whether it’s high-resolution microscopy and spectroscopy, blood analysis using multi-parameter flow cytometry or the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests that are indispensable in the battle against SARS-COVID-19, including downstream genome sequencing of the virus mutations: The most advanced processes for medical diagnostics and scientific analysis are based on light as a tool. From April 26 to 29, 2022, LASER World of PHOTONICS will be the global platform for leading players from biophotonics as well as providers of key optoelectronic components.

The 25th LASER World of PHOTONICS is able to take place as an in-person event thanks in no small part to the ingenuity of its exhibitors. Without the components and applications of photonics at the heart of this world-leading trade fair, it would be unthinkable that humanity has come far enough in its battle against the pandemic and the SARS-COVID-19 virus to hold such an event. But now safe trade fairs are once again possible based on a professional safety and hygiene concept—one which has already proven itself at several Messe München events.

Key role in the battle against the pandemic

What does that have to do with photonics? A great deal, as everything that medical research has found out so far about the virus and its mutations is thanks to the use of light as a tool. Key optoelectronic components made it possible to rapidly sequence the SARS-CoV-2 genome, which was essential in developing vaccines, rapid tests and PCR tests. The full genome sequencing of positive samples is now also being used to continuously trace the virus mutations. Photonics also supplies key components for the testing procedure. For example, the virus can be detected using the reliable PCR method with fluorescent or colorimetric signals emitted by specific molecules of the virus. These are recorded using cutting edge multi-pixel photon counters, photosensors and CMOS camera modules. Even in rapid antigen tests that are used on a large scale, thin-layer chromatography is essentially a photonic solution. This makes it possible to see whether an infection is present or not thanks to the dashes that appear.

Biophotonics is paving the way for personalized medicine

The fact that medical research had immediate access to a highly advanced photonics toolbox at the outbreak of the pandemic can be traced back to the continual development of laser beam sources, photo sensors and precision optics. The players driving this progress will meet in Munich from April 26 to 29: Their solutions are the basis for minimally invasive operations and diagnostics. Miniature endoscopes—light conducting glass fibers with 3D-printed lenses—make inspections in blood vessels possible. With their increasingly high-resolution microscopes and nano-spectroscopy processes, biomaterials can be analyzed on a molecular level. AI processes are helping users to quickly extract useful information from the vast amounts of image data that state-of-the-art imaging techniques record at megahertz (MHz) frequencies. The high image frequency, partly in connection with ultrashort pulse lasers, makes chemical processes and tiny changes in the position of observed objects in living cells visible.

In conjunction with optical filters, lasers of differing wavelengths are the basis for multi-parameter flow cytometry, which quickly and reliably identifies cell types in blood. High-end analysis based on photonics such as this is a central tool for personalized medicine. By detecting DNA circulating in blood and using high-resolution cell and tissue analysis, it is possible to recognize illnesses at an increasingly early stage and to decode their biochemical principles of action in the patient’s body. This is the foundation for tailoring therapies more specifically to the individual patient and for checking the effectiveness of the measures initiated using the rapidly expanding toolbox for multimodal imaging and analysis. This accelerated clinical process in terms of personalized treatment not only has a name—“theranostics”—but also a central enabling technology: photonics.

Biophotonics for food security and gentle agriculture

This far from covers the entire range of biophotonics applications. They are developing multispectral sensors which allow food manufacturers to ensure the quality of their products. Farmers are experimenting with laser processes in place of herbicides for weed management. They are also using sensors to control whether and where the plants in their fields lack nutrients with accuracy to the square meter. Seed and plant producers are also using photonic solutions on a broad front. And when crops are grown indoors for urban farming, there is no way around energy-efficient UV lighting. The enablers of these combined photonic applications will meet in Munich at LASER 2022.