LET THERE BE LIGHT: BIOPHOTONICS YIELDS NEW TOOLS AGAINST
Last August the National Science Foundation chose UC
Davis to spearhead one of six new science and technology centers around the country. The six centers
were selected from among 143 applicants nationwide, bringing the total number of centers to 25. UC
Davis heads the only one devoted to biophotonics.
Biophotonics, the study of light in biology and medicine, is an emerging field that encompasses radiant
energy across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves through optical wavelengths to gamma rays.
Potential applications are dazzling: light-based tools that can detect and treat cancer, laser microscopes
that can see inside working cells, even personal anthrax detectors.
The Center for Biophotonics Science
and Technology at UC Davis will take shape
at the corner of Stockton Boulevard and Second Avenue, a weedy lot where a Moose Lodge stood for more
than four decades. The 40,000-square-foot building, expected to open its doors next fall, will provide
badly needed laboratory space for new cancer center researchers. The
cancer research program is fast outgrowing its current research facility, a 50,000-square-foot brick
tower known as Research
"Not only will the new space allow us to move ahead with faculty recruitment in cancer research,
but it also offers us a chance to integrate some cancer research with biophotonics research," says
Hsing-Jien Kung, director of basic sciences for UC
Davis Cancer Center.
Physicist Dennis Matthews and neurosurgeon James Boggan are co-directors of the new center. Matthews
is associate director of the UC Davis Cancer
Center Biomedical Technology Program and leader of the Biomedical Technology Program at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory. Boggan is professor and vice chair of neurological surgery at UC
As headquarters for the pioneering new center, UC
Davis coordinates the efforts of nine member institutions: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UCSF, Stanford University, Mills College, the University of Texas
at San Antonio, Fisk University in Tennessee, Hampton University in Virginia and Alabama A&M University.
The center unites more than 100 researchers at the member institutions in a collaborative effort to speed
new technology to the clinic.
"Bringing people from different disciplines and institutions together to tackle a problem brings
new expertise and approaches to bear," Boggan says. "Otherwise, cross-disciplinary work just
doesn't tend to occur; it isn't encouraged in the usual structure. When you have a grant like this, people
The award comes with $40 million from the National Science Foundation over 10 years. Another $12 million
has come from federal, state and private partners.
The National Science Foundation, an independent agency of the United States government, was created in
1950 and charged with "promoting the progress of science, advancing national health, prosperity and
welfare and securing the national defense."
The foundation established its Science and Technology Centers program in 1987. The goal, in response
to rising global competition, was to mount an innovative, interdisciplinary attack in important areas
of basic research. The first centers were established in 1989, more were added in 1991, and in a few short
years they have grown from a new idea into a vital network of programs. Centers have been created in five
broad areas: the biological sciences, computer and information sciences and engineering, the geosciences,
mathematics and physical sciences and the social, behavioral and economic sciences.
Researchers in the new building will shed new light on cancer. One approach relies on fluorescent tags
to pinpoint a molecule's location. "We're trying to perfect this to the point that we can run tests
for proteins associated with cancer," Matthews says. "We want to be able to detect a protein
in a patient's saliva, urine or blood that's a marker of cancer somewhere in the body or of a predisposition
to cancer." UC Davis researchers will
also work closely with their colleagues at the nine allied institutions. At Stanford, for example, investigators
are building an X-ray-free electron laser. The laser, which may be completed as early as three years from
now, may give scientists their first look at a working molecule, in its native state, inside a living
cell. Matthews plans to be first in line to use the laser to answer basic questions about the molecular
mechanisms that turn healthy cells malignant.
Livermore physicist Stavros Demos will move his work on an optical biopsy prototype to the new biophotonics
building. His prototype detects cancer by analyzing laser light reflected from tissue. Demos has shown
that light bounces off malignant cells differently than off healthy cells, and has designed technology
that can tell the difference.
He is applying the technology first to bladder cancer. His prototype fits on the tip of a cystoscope,
a device used to look inside the bladder. He hopes the technology will enable urologists to diagnose bladder
tumors during cystoscopy, without need for a surgical biopsy or pathology report. Urologists use a cysto
scope, a lighted instrument attached to the tip of a thin, flexible tube, to look inside patients' bladders
noninvasively. The flexible tube reaches the bladder through the urethra.
"For bladder cancer, we now have a well-defined design that has proved very accurate," says
Demos, who also serves as associate professor of urology at UC
Davis. "In preliminary tests using human bladder tissue extracted following surgery, there has
been 100-percent agreement with the pathologists' diagnoses.
" The prototype must now be refined for use in the clinic, and Demos and his colleagues are seeking
funding from the National Cancer Institute to build it.
"Maybe in a couple of years," he says, "we can be doing this in the human body."