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Science Nation: Biophotonics Poised to Make Major Breakthroughs in Medicine

4 minutes

(Describer) In an animation, streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation.

(Describer) A machine sends out and bends thin green beams of light.

(male narrator) Imagine manipulating light waves to see through a skull, right into the brain. Or using lasers to diagnose a bacterial infection in a matter of minutes. Sounds like science fiction, but at the Center for Biophotonic Sensors and Systems at Boston University, these technologies and many others, you might say, are coming to light. Biophotonics, simply, is the use of light to enhance our understanding of biological processes and biological function.

(Describer) Microscopic spheres move.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, mechanical engineer Thomas Bifano and his team are developing optical microscopes that can image deep into biological tissue, helping scientists observe molecular-scale activity. The goal: revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

(Describer) A man enters a lab.

So how did the experiment go?

(narrator) Virologist John Connor is working on a method to tag and fingerprint viruses like Ebola, using a tag that responds to a certain wavelength of light.

(male) If someone comes into a clinic and we are concerned that they might have a virus infection, can we take a sample from them and then put in a particle that will act as a beacon that will attach to the virus if it's at all present in that sample?

(Describer) A woman holds up a sample in a tube.

So is that pretty well enriched? Yes.

(narrator) Chemist Larry Ziegler and his team are working with a company called BioTools to develop a test that uses lasers to diagnose a bacterial infection accurately and quickly. They put a sample of the bacteria onto a tiny chip that's coated with metallic nanoparticles. The sample goes into this portable machine that bombards it with lasers, making the bacteria cells vibrate. Each type of bacteria has a unique vibration signature which can be run through a database to make a match.

(male) So we immediately know what the right antibiotic to prescribe for that specific strain. And we can do this within minutes.

(Describer) Another woman smiles in another lab.

(narrator) Biomedical engineer Xue Han wants to better understand Parkinson's disease. She attaches light-sensitive proteins from algae to neurons in the brain to observe and even control certain brain activity.

(female) This will allow the neurons to be activated at pulses of light. And then we can control these neurons and turn them on or off by controlling the light.

(Describer) Bifano:

Ultimately, the goal is to find better drugs and better ways to cure disease.

(narrator) Bifano says in five to ten years he expects much of the center's research will move from the lab into the field, shining new light on what's going on inside the body and mind.

(Describer) A globe turns beside the title.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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Imagine having the ability to manipulate light waves in order to see through a skull right into the brain, or being able to use lasers to diagnose a bacterial infection in a matter of minutes. At the Center for Biophotonic Sensors and Systems (CBSS) at Boston University, technologies enabling these abilities and many others are coming to light. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), mechanical engineer Thomas Bifano and his colleagues are developing optical microscopes that can image deep into biological tissue, helping scientists observe molecular-scale activity. Their goal is to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Part of the National Science Foundation Series “Science Nation.”

Media Details

Runtime: 4 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 3
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 4
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 5
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 6
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 7
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 8
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 9
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 10
4 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12