Biophotonics can be defined simply as the study of the interaction of light with biological material – where “light” includes all forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon.
With revolutionary advances in biomedical science, our understanding of the mechanisms of human health and disease has extended into the regime of cellular and molecular structure and function. The ability to image, analyze, and manipulate living tissue at this level (and to do so in a minimally- or noninvasive manner) has become essential for continued progress in biomedical research and development. Light is unique in that it can be utilized to perform exactly these functions; and for this reason, biophotonics is widely regarded as the key science upon which the next generation of clinical tools and biomedical research instruments will be based.
In their 1998 report, “Harnessing Light-Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century”,
the National Research Council (NRC) discussed the current utilization
of laser technology for basic medical diagnostic and therapeutic
applications, but pointed to the relative lack of translation of
laboratory bench top research into technology to improve or enable
non-invasive clinical diagnostic measurements (i.e., blood gas /
chemistry, serum markers, glucose monitoring, pharmacokinetics, etc.)
The NRC strongly recommended initiatives to assemble expert,
multi-disciplinary teams comprised of physical and life scientists,
engineers and physicians to (1) elucidate the mechanisms of transport
and interaction of photons in biomaterials; (2) identify critical areas
where photonics could significantly impact biomedical research and
clinical medicine; and (3) exploit these opportunities by developing
the appropriate photonic technology (e.g., light sources, detectors or
imaging systems) and/or methodology. The NRC also recommended
government funding and resources to support these initiatives and to
promote multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research as a new
The Center for Biophotonics, Science and Technology (CBST) was conceived in response to the NRC recommendations, and also to a perceived need among the leading academic and research institutions in the Bay Area and abroad, for a consolidated and more concerted effort to address a host of emerging grand challenges. CBST was commissioned by the National Science Foundation in 2002, along with five other science and technology centers to focus research efforts in the broad field of Biophotonics. It is the only science and technology center, funded by NSF, which is dedicated to this field. Its goal is to advance biomedicine and photonics engineering – by focusing its intellectual, scientific, educational and industrial outreach efforts on the rapid and directed development of biophotonics technology. In doing so, the Center plans to formulate the first strategic roadmap for biophotonics research. CBST coordinates activities within its core group of eight university campuses and one national laboratory, and is building an extensive worldwide network of schools, industrial partners, and other biophotonics research centers. While the majority of CBST investigators are distinguished for their substantial (albeit individual) contributions to biophotonics in the past, the Center expects to greatly potentiate their research efforts by placing an emphasis on the vertical integration of knowledge and applications that span the intellectual landscape.
Science and Technology (S&T) research and development are clearly at the heart of CBST. In order to better grasp the vast scope of biophotonics, the Center has organized its S&T section around three principal theme areas that we believe have important near-term payoff in science, medical technology, and the biomedical industry:
Bioimaging: The impact and amount of information contained in visual data is almost impossible to underestimate. For this reason, imaging remains one of the most powerful tools in biomedical research. Bioimaging technology can be considered both a basic and applied science. In the scale of human biology, tools such as X-rays, computed tomography, and light microscopy are able to image life down to the cellular level. Recent advances in genomics and proteomics, on the other hand, have revealed much about the structure of biological systems at the atomic and molecular scale. In between these two regimes, a critical gap exists in our ability to image at the level of molecular complexes and subcellular structures. The S&T Program is supporting several research projects that are developing new photonic solutions for advanced bioimaging. These projects include work to develop X-ray lasers to enable diffraction imaging of single biomolecules, new gene-based optical labels for fluorescence imaging, and “structured” illumination to achieve new levels of resolution with light microscopy.
Cellular and Molecular Biophotonics: This theme area focuses on research to improve our understanding of basic biological mechanisms. Having shown that biophotonic technology is uniquely capable of observing and analyzing dynamic, molecular systems, we are focused on two areas that have been particularly difficult to study in the past: (1) DNA-protein interactions (relevant to genetic damage recognition and repair, cancer and aging); and (2) cell membrane physiology (particularly relevant to understanding the mechanism and development of atherosclerosis).
Medical Biophotonics: With recent advances in light sources and detection technologies, biophotonics is playing a critical role in the development of new medical diagnostic and therapeutic applications. In the area of optical sensors and assays, we are developing a host of new devices, including: fiber optic-based enzymatic sensors; chemical and biological nanoprobes utilizing surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS); protein microarrays for cancer detection; and new multi-photon systems for ultrasensitive microbial detection. We are exploring new ways to use femtosecond-pulsed lasers and advanced photodynamic therapy (PDT) to bring surgical precision to the level of single cells. Finally in this theme area, we are developing new methods to perform real-time, spectroscopic characterization of tissues in vivo. These methods can be used to provide early warnings of organ transplant rejection; and Raman characterization of single cells in vitro.
To ensure that the United States maintains its position as a global leader in biophotonic science and technology, the Education and Human Resource Development arm of CBST is dedicated to developing tools, strategies and materials to train the next generation of scientists and engineers interested in biophotonics. The Center has considered the path of science education (from K-12 to post-doctorate), and is working to develop both formal and informal programs to introduce biophotonics at all levels. Since light and optics are so intimately linked with our sense of sight, we are fortunate that the demonstration of basic biophotonic concepts can be visually rich and immediately intuitive – even to individuals without substantial education in math and science. For this reason, we believe that biophotonics is an ideal topic to introduce to students (at the junior high school level or earlier), as a vehicle to spark or maintain their interest in both the physical and life sciences – with the hope that they will pursue higher education and professional careers in these disciplines later on.
In K-12 education we are committed to increasing the number and diversity of students excited about science. Our K-5 after-school program offers engaging, hands-on activities that promote scientific inquiry and concept development. By engaging diverse K-5 students, their after-school instructors, future teachers in the UC Davis Human Development program, 4-H Youth leaders, and Sacramento area after-school programs, we are forging a lasting and beneficial relationship in which young kids benefit through exciting science experiences.
As they mature, students can engage in our High School Biophotonics Research Academy, a year-long after-school program that focuses on providing authentic research experiences in biophotonics to under-represented youths. To expand the number of students that can engage in such programs we collaborate with the Science and Technology Education Program (STEP) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to re-skill high school and community college teachers so that they may be able to introduce biophotonics in their own classrooms and act as Biophotonics Research Academy teachers.
In higher education we strive to create research and training opportunities that will engage a diverse population of students. At the Community College level we are partnered with TVI (Technical Vocational Institute) to create a Biophotonics specialization within their nationally recognized Photonics technician program. At the university level we have created introductory and advanced courses that directly prepare students to become part of the Biophotonics research community and engage in research. Towards that end, CBST offers an on-going internship program for all undergraduate students through its extensive network of academic institutions and industrial partners. The program recruits students from all of our partner institutions and national conferences placing the students directly in CBST laboratories with CBST mentors. Once students move on to graduate school, a designated emphasis in Biophotonics has been created at UC Davis to enable the Biophotonics focused student to receive training and recognition for their interest in this emerging field.
For the public and educators at large we engage in public events and are compiling the most extensive library of Biophotonics teaching materials to date! Our presence at major events staged at the UC Davis Medical Center and UC Davis Campus expose thousands of people to Biophotonic science and applications. On our website we are putting together a library of images, movies, lecture presentations, videotaped lectures and discussions, demonstrations, curricular activities and more freely available to the public at large.
As you can see from our educational components aimed at 5 to 100 year old students, CBST education is committed to helping everyone understand this emerging new field while enhancing the direct opportunities for students of all ages, gender, economic and racial background to engage in hands-on activities and research. The science of Biophotonics requires diverse disciplines and diverse participants to make it come alive!
CBST has been organized to provide the strongest and most efficient executive, management and integrating functions possible. Management and Senior Personnel have been selected in a way that brings together a group of talented and committed individuals whose experiences and training are multi-dimensional, representing excellence across many disciplines – science, business, management, education, and industrial partnering. We also believe we have the right set of knowledge, skills and abilities, along with the critical interpersonal skills necessary to direct and coordinate efforts among many disparate groups, across many physical locations in order to bring about a unified center concept. One of the most distinguishing features of the CBST is the commitment we have made in addressing our human resource diversity. We have recruited a group of personnel throughout all focus and thrust areas that genuinely reflect our country’s gender, cultural and ethnic diversity.
The mission of the Center’s Knowledge Transfer program is to advance and promote the field of biophotonics in life sciences and medicine through industrial partnerships and internships, commercialization of novel clinical and research technologies, and scientific public outreach through CBST-sponsored events. The accomplish its mission, the Knowledge Transfer team focuses on 4 areas: science communication, industry partnering, public relations, and strategic planning for a sustainable future.