To develop the miniature laser-surgery system, Ben-Yakar worked with co-author Olav Solgaard at Stanford University’s Electrical Engineering Department to incorporate a miniaturized scanning mirror. Ben-Yakar and her graduate student Chris Hoy, another co-author, also used a novel fiber optic cable that can withstand intense light pulses traveling from an infrared, femtosecond laser. To make the intensity more manageable, they stretched the light pulses into longer, weaker pulses for traveling through the fiber. Then they used the fiber’s unique properties to reconstruct the light into more intense, short light pulses before entering the tissue.
For the study, Ben-Yakar directed laser light at breast cancer cells in three-dimensional biostructures that mimic the optical properties of breast tissue. She has since studied laboratory-grown, layered cell structures that mimic skin tissue and other tissues.
Ben-Yakar is also investigating the use of nanoparticles to focus the light energy on targeted cells. In research published last year, she demonstrated that gold nanoparticles can function as nano-scale magnifying lenses, increasing the laser light reaching cells by at least an order of magnitude, or 10-fold.
“If we can consistently deliver nanoparticles to cancer cells or other tissue that we want to target, we would be able to remove hundreds of unwanted cells at once using a single femtosecond laser pulse,” Ben-Yakar says. “But we would still be keeping the healthy cells alive while photo-damaging just the cells we want, basically creating nanoscale holes in a tissue.”
Grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health funded the research.