Making History: Adela Ben-Yakar
One of the challenges of fighting cancer is that the process of destroying cancer cells can also damage surrounding healthy tissue. But what if we could battle cancer one cell at a time? Faculty member Adela Ben-Yakar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has developed a “microscalpel” that can destroy a single cancer cell while leaving nearby healthy cells intact. Ben-Yakar’s technique uses a laser to produce extremely brief high-energy pulses of light that sear a targeted cell so quickly and accurately that the laser’s heat has no time to escape and damage neighboring cells.
“You can remove a cell with high precision in 3-D without damaging the cells above and below it,” Ben-Yakar says. “And you can see, with the same precision, what you are doing to guide your microsurgery.”
A commercially available femtosecond laser system and microscope was developed recently for LASIK and other eye surgeries, but the system’s bulk limits its usefulness. Ben-Yakar’s laboratory has overcome technological challenges to create a microscope system that can deliver femtosecond laser pulses up to 250 microns deep inside tissue. The system includes a tiny, flexible probe that focuses light pulses on a spot that is smaller than human cells.
The medical community envisions the lasers’ use for more accurate destruction of many types of unhealthy material. These include small tumors of the vocal cords, cancer cells left behind after the removal of solid tumors, individual cancer cells scattered throughout brain or other tissue, and plaque in arteries.
Ben-Yakar is now working to shrink the probe’s 15-millimeter diameter threefold to the size of the endoscopes used for laparoscopic surgery. The probe tip she has developed also could be made disposable — for use operating on people who have infectious diseases or destroying deadly viruses and other biomaterials.
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