The Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic (BLIMC) held its 30th anniversary, “Multiple Reflections,” on February 9, 2017. The event celebrated the Institute’s past achievements, present accomplishments and future discoveries.

In 1982, Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, provided the original financial gift to create the BLIMC as an interdisciplinary center at UCI for the development and application of optical technologies in biology and medicine. He liked to donate money in the form of matching grants, challenging recipients to be as invested as he was in the venture. At the celebration, BLIMC co-founder
Dr. Michael Berns recounted his experiences with Dr. Beckman and their shared vision to create one of the first interdisciplinary medical laser institutes in the world. Together,
Drs. Berns and Beckman raised funds to build the original building, which opened in 1986.

Over the past 30 years, the BLIMC has played a key role in helping drive the growth of optics and photonics in biology and medicine. Director Dr. Bruce Tromberg summarized the history of this expansion that has helped fuel the development of “Biophotonics and Biomedical Optics,” a new discipline that is now well-represented in academic and industry programs around the world. However, according to Tromberg, we are only scratching the surface. Innovations in optics and photonics technologies combined with health care economic pressures are creating important new opportunities that will allow us to “embark on a path forward over the next 30 years that is as bold and visionary as the founding of the Institute.”

Introducing COSI
UCI Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Dr. Enrique Lavernia announced the “Convergence Optical Sciences Initiative (COSI),” an $8 million UCI investment in optics and photonics. “Our goal is to create exciting new opportunities with a broader impact on scientific discovery and human health,” said Lavernia. COSI will partner BLIMC with the schools of Engineering, Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Medicine, in collaboration with UCI Applied Innovation. Over the next five years, COSI will hire at least five new faculty and create a dedicated space for academic/industry collaboration and engagement. The first COSI hire is Dr. Chris Barty, professor of Physics and Astronomy, who is a pioneer in advanced laser light source technologies. Barty, who joined UCI and the BLIMC on July 1, 2017 has already launched Lumitron Technology Inc., a new venture that will commercialize his discoveries.

According to Provost Lavernia, “COSI-generated photonics expertise will benefit UCI programs, such as the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, the Edwards Lifesciences Center for Advanced Cardiovascular Technology, as well as further innovation and commercialization in cardiology, neurology, cancer, and sports medicine. It will draw people who are developing revolutionary new light sources and imaging technologies, innovators who are creating new methods and technologies to find and cure disease, and entrepreneurs who will accelerate the translation and impact of our work via commercialization. We believe this is a powerful strategic approach for UCI to build new human and intellectual capital that will substantially strengthen our region.”

Could biophotonics prevent disease?
“The ability to fashion ways to better diagnose and treat diseases that have gone on without adequate interventional options is an area where I think the intersection between photonics and medicine is going to have an impact,” said vice chancellor for health affairs and CEO of the UCI Health System, Dr. Howard J. Federoff. “This is increasingly clear as we understand more about the etiology or underlying basis of disease.” According to Federoff, the potential is to develop non-invasive, low-cost screening technologies to detect diseases pre-clinically, before a doctor sees them. Federoff cited screening for microscopic melanoma before it comes to clinical attention and using near-infrared light for non-invasive brain imaging. “I think this is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg,” said Federoff.

According to Dr. Pramod P. Khargonekar, UCI vice chancellor for research, convergence can lead to breakthroughs when engineers, chemists, and physicists collaborate with biologists and practicing physicians. Optics, photonics and imaging technologies could have tremendous impact on cancer, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiovascular disease. “We still think of therapies and diagnostics, but I can imagine a future using these non-invasive techniques of photonics and optics,” said Khargonekar. “You could detect initiation of disease and use that to take steps to prevent full-blown occurrence. That would be an amazing breakthrough.”

Reshaping noses, preserving brain function and building artificial pancreases
Attendees toured 17 interactive technology demonstrations featuring unique inventions by BLIMC faculty. For example, researchers in the lab of Dr. Brian Wong, professor of Otolaryngology, Biomedical Engineering (BME), and Surgery, showed how bioelectric technologies combined with biophotonic imaging could lead to new minimally-invasive surgical approaches for repairing and remodeling cartilage, tendon, ligament, skin, and fat.

The lab of Dr. Elliot Botvinick, associate professor of BME and Surgery, is developing an artificial pancreas for type 1 diabetics. Their innovative approach will provide patients with implantable scaffolds that house pancreatic islet cells combined with oxygen-sensing microparticles. Optical sensing of microparticle activity is used to monitor oxygen levels and blood vessel growth. “It is like building the house first, and then moving in,” said researcher Dr. John Weidling. Rachel Gurlin, a graduate student, has just published her first paper on the new approach. Her sister has type 1 diabetes. “I cannot imagine studying anything else,” said Gurlin.

The multiplier effect of COSI
“If you think about the fundamental technology that BLIMC has embraced and leverages every day, it not only has benefit for patient outcomes, but it also has implications in other fields,” said Bob Phillippy, former CEO of Newport-Spectra Physics Corporation. “The technologies that are used to create consumer devices can also create medical devices. Behind it all is photonic technology and it is the fundamental nature of light being behind the scenes, in many cases, ubiquitously deployed, to be able to do the work faster. You hear the speed of light. Literally. Harnessing that technology and leveraging its capabilities is something that is really significant…and (potentially) world changing.”

“We already have seen the incredible trajectories and impressive impact of BLIMC-generated technologies on the local healthcare economy,” said chief innovation officer and executive director of UCI Applied Innovation, Dr. Richard Sudek. “Orange County has over 300 medical device companies that depend on innovation as their lifeblood. It is our mission to get these technologies from the lab to commercialization. We bridge that last step—implementation—by supporting BLIMC researchers and fostering the networks of entrepreneurship: partnerships, licensing, and industry-sponsored research with companies and researchers. As COSI accelerates the rate of innovation generation, we are partnering with the BLIMC to ensure that more of these promising technologies get to market.”

Excerpts from Cove TechCurrents,
by Wendy Wolfson.