Yes—lasers! You did read that right!
Currently, diagnostic tests for cancer are often expensive, lengthy and sometimes invasive; however, physicists have created a new form of laser that could potentially be used to detect cancerous properties in cells.
There are certain differences in the molecules and chemical processes within cancerous cells compared to normal cells which lead to their uncontrolled division. This can be through the inhibition of genes which prevent damaged cells from replicating, or an increase in factors which promote cell proliferation; this range of differences between cancerous and non-cancerous cells can be generally referred to as “cancer biomarkers” and are what scientists are working on detecting with these lasers.
So, how does this work?
Traditionally, lasers work by exciting molecules, in what is known as a “gain material”, with some form of energy that causes them to release photons and eventually emit light in what you see as the laser beam. The wavelength of this light is specific to the molecules used in the gain material, therefore by using a machine to identify the wavelength of the light in the laser beam we can get a “fingerprint” of the molecules in the gain material.
Scientists have now created what are known as tunable plasmon lasers, with which it may be possible to incorporate biological material with the gain material (for example, blood), which would affect the wavelength of light emitted in the laser beam. In theory, abnormal cells could give a different “fingerprint” of light to normal cells due to these cancer biomarkers; allowing us to differentiate between samples with normal cells and abnormal and potentially cancerous ones.
Let’s put this into perspective…
Cancer screening involving taking a pint of blood and doing many different tests on it is both too timely and expensive to allow on a large scale. This technology could be used to make a tiny machine which requires only a very small sample of blood (or alternative tissue samples), and be used to quickly and relatively cheaply screen samples from thousands of people and immediately tell you whether they’re healthy or may require further testing.
Furthermore, they give the potential to detect these cancer biomarkers at such low concentrations that we could detect abnormalities earlier than ever before; potentially saving thousands of lives each year.
Now I’m not knocking Star Wars…but I think we may have found a cooler use for lasers than lightsabers.