Photonics, in a nut shell, is the study of light and the detection, manipulation and generation of its unit part, known as photons. Sounds simple right? When you consider it’s many applications – from detection of tumours – via in vivo (within the body) and in vitro (human samples examined externally) diagnostics, ground to space communications, secure ground telecommunications and even the tracking of medical tools during internal examinations, it becomes anything but.
In this week’s blog I will discuss the increased growth in photonics research and technological development, on a global platform.
So far in 2017, the Photonics industry has contributed in excess of £12.9 million to the economy here in the UK. It has also been highlighted in the European Horizon 2020 programme as a key enabling technology. This is the largest Research and Innovation programme, making almost 80 million Euro’s available to fund appropriate projects championing development in this sector. The potential of photonics application in the fight against cancer means it has also been highlighted in the US as an area of focus. The Cancer Moonshot Task began in June 2016 when Obama requested his vice president began a five-year project national project, with the specific mandate of “ending cancer as we know it”. The UK has been ear marked as a hub for this with a new National Centre for Healthcare Photonics to be opened in 2018 in County Durham. This state of the art facility will offer exceptional facilities from laboratories to manufacturing all housed in a ISO 13485 accredited and quality managed environment. Allowing the perfect environment for collaboration and development of these principles and the commercialisation of devices and their component sub-assemblies. This will also allow the devices to be tested in controlled scenarios, from light controlled boxes, to temperature and humidity control.
The principal application of photonics in healthcare is the application of Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) in medical imaging. This process allows the capture of a three dimensional image – using light to capture it in high resolution. This has exceptional applications in the diagnosis of solid state tumours, without the need for invasive surgery. It can also be used to monitor the progression of the disease and the effect of treatment on the tumour. This approach can also be used in monitoring the healing of wounds on a subdermal level, the diagnosis of neurological and ophthalmic conditions- again without the need for an invasive procedure. This non-invasive property and the level of detection are two of the reasons that technology in this area is so pivotal. Also, the speed in which images can be produced and the obvious reduction on surgery costs, recovery time in hospital and the reduced time before treatment can begin for the patient are advantageous. OCT also has a part to play in the therapy and recover stage for the patient – in monitoring the, hopeful, deterioration of the tumour and also the swift detection of reoccurrence during remission. This high resolution image also benefits the patient as they can be treated in a much more targeted and specific way.
Within earthly communications, photonics and the advances in fibre optic technology means that large volumes of data can be transferred via the process of optical pulses (flashes of light, delivered in the form of laser beams). Fibre optics, due to their flexibility, can be used in a wide range of environments, for secure communications, where traditional electrical sensors are problematic, for example in the presence of explosives, in a defence/military application. Ground to space communications are also utilising photonics, due to the speed of the transmission but also due to electromagnetic interference which again affects traditional electrical sensors, but not transmissions using photonics. It is also attractive due to the low size, weight and power of this form of communications. Obvious, these considerations are important for any device, but particularly so for equipment to be taken with astronauts into space.
Research is ongoing into the application of photonics in metrology – measuring optical frequency, computing – in opto electronic systems, time and power is lost during the transfer of electronic energy to photons and back again, this is not the case in photonic computers and gyroscope based technology – increasing the sensitivity of guidance systems – from aviation to rocket, negating the need for rotation of the gyroscope (Sagnac Effect), allowing them to be just as effective but manufactured much smaller so that they can be fit onto a printed circuit board.
Previously the lack of funding was cited as the barrier to the vast developments in this field and its application across a wide range of industries. With the arrival of the new National Centre for Healthcare Photonics in County Durham next year the application is set to boom. I suspect photonics research and applications will increase across the board as other industries begin to shine a light on the benefits.
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Julie has written numerous interesting and well researched blogs on a wide range of topics related to Medical Devices and Human Factors. Please click here to read more of Julie's blogs and here to find out more about Julie.