Scientists in the US have developed a laser that can locate, map, and then precisely destroy cancer tumors non-invasively.

Using a “femtosecond laser” that pulses at speeds of one-quadrillionth of a second, the new “seek and destroy” device focuses on a specific tissue region to find and precisely map a tumor.

The new technology is the creation of Christian Parigger, associate professor of physics, and Jacqueline Johnson, associate professor of mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineering, both of University of Tennessee Space Institute in Tullahoma, along with Robert Splinter of Splinter Consultants.

Parigger says in a statement released earlier this week:

“Using ultra-short light pulses gives us the ability to focus in a well confined region and the ability for intense radiation.”

“This allows us to come in and leave a specific area quickly so we can diagnose and attack tumorous cells fast,” he adds.

Once the laser finds the cancerous area and has it precisely targeted, all that is needed is for the radiation intensity to be turned up to burn off the tumor.

The scientists say the new invention has the potential to be more exact than current treatments; plus it could save a lot of money because the operation could be done as an outpatient procedure instead of intensive surgery.

While their new device could help people with most types of cancer, the team expect people with brain cancer will especially benefit.

The imaging technology can see through thin layers of bone like that of the skull, non-invasively. It can do this well enough to help define a targeted treatment strategy for persistent cancer, says the team.

Current treatment are limited because of the higher possibility of damaging neighbouring healthy tissue, as Parigger explains:

“Using longer laser-light pulses is similar to leaving a light bulb on, which gets warm and can damage healthy tissue.”

“Because the femtosecond laser radiation can be precisely focused both spatially and temporally, one can avoid heating up too many other things that you do not want heated,” says Parigger.

The team suggests the new device has the potential to overcome many of the difficulties in treating brain cancer and tumors: especially in cases where surgery may not be an option if not all carcinogenic tissue can be removed.

“If you have a cancerous area such as in the brain, the notion is if you see something and take care of it, it won’t spread,” says Parigger. “This treatment overcomes difficulties in treating brain cancer and tumors. And it has the promise of application to other areas, as well.”

The University of Tennessee Research Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps the University bring its inventions to market, are now working with the researchers to commercialize their idea.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD