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High-speed laser sets sights on cancer

Researchers believe that one day we may kill off cancer with a simple yet precise laser burst.

Pew pew! From disc drives to sci-fi shooters, we live in a world full of laser beams. And a special laser made waves in the world of medical research this week. Developed by laser applications researchers from the University of Tennessee's Space Institute, it could one day find use as a weapon against cancer.

Known as a femtosecond laser, the high-speed light pulses at one-quadrillionth of a second; when fine-tuned, the powerful beam can be used by doctors to detect, map, and nullify cancerous tumors.

Screenshot by Christopher MacManus/CNET

"Using ultra-short light pulses gives us the ability to focus in a well-confined region, and the ability for intense radiation," Christian Parigger, associate professor of physics at the University of Tennessee, said in a statement. "This allows us to come in and leave a specific area quickly so we can diagnose and attack tumorous cells fast."

Parigger co-developed the laser with Jacqueline Johnson, associate professor of mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineering, along with Robert Splinter of Splinter Consultants.

After targeting the cancerous region, researchers found that intensifying the laser radiation burned off tumors safely and effectively. The researchers also believe the laser's ease of use and accuracy means that removing a cancerous tumor could shift from the operating room to the outpatient room in the future.

Brain cancer patients may also find themselves ideal candidates for the femtosecond laser, as a statement from the university notes the burst of light can "non-invasively permeate" the skull. During treatment, the high accuracy and relatively low radiation dosage of the laser also leaves healthy brain tissue intact, a common issue with other radiation-based treatments.

"Because the femtosecond laser radiation can be precisely focused both spatially and temporally, one can avoid heating up too many other things that you do not want heated," Parigger said. "Using longer laser-light pulses is similar to leaving a lightbulb on, which gets warm and can damage healthy tissue."

Parigger and his colleagues "are working to bring their technology to market with the University of Tennessee Research Foundation," said a statement.

This year has seen a slew of new methods that could be used one day in the fight against cancer, including a quick cancer-detecting camera; a microfluidic device that harvests and cultures circulating tumor cells; a program that screens chemo drugs; hot nanotubes that heat up stubborn cancerous cells; and a lung cancer breathalyzer.

(Via Engadget Alt)