Public Release: 

NSF establishes center for biophotonics at UC Davis

New light-based technologies aim to probe living tissue like never before.

University of California - Davis

Using lasers, light and radiant energy in biology and medicine is the aim of a major new collaborative center announced today at the University of California, Davis.

Funded with $52 million over the next 10 years, including a $40 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology will bring together scientists, industry, educators and the community to research and develop applications for biophotonics -- the science of using light to understand the inner workings of cells and tissues in living organisms.

The center will be announced in a press conference on the UC Davis campus today, Oct. 24.

Applications of biophotonics range from using light to selectively treat tumors, to sequencing DNA, biochemical studies and identifying single biomolecules within cells.

"Lasers have become an essential element in clinical practice in contemporary medicine and surgery," said James E. Boggan, professor of neurological surgery at UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center and co-director of the new center.

"Lasers are indispensable in a number of surgical specialties, from dermatology to oncology, and the development of new medical laser technologies and techniques offers tremendous opportunities to improve the practice of medicine further, from developing better sutures to treating osteoporosis," Boggan said.

The center brings together roughly 100 researchers including physical scientists, life scientists, physicians and engineers. In addition to UC Davis and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, center members include UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Stanford University, Alabama A&M University, University of Texas at San Antonio, Hampton University, Fisk University and Louisiana State University.

The Center for Biophotonics Science and Technology is the only NSF-funded center in the country that will focus on this area of research. The center's funding includes $40 million from the NSF over 10 years plus $12 million in matching funds from federal and state grants and private funding.

"To be selected as the lead campus for such a major multidisciplinary center is a tribute to the strength and depth of UC Davis' research, especially in areas such as biophotonics that cross boundaries between disciplines," said Virginia Hinshaw, provost and executive vice chancellor at UC Davis. "This exciting opportunity will strengthen our connection to collaborators both regionally and nationally, especially our long-standing links with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory."

One of the goals of the center is to develop new technology that will enable scientists and physicians to see what takes place in living cells and how the different components function in real time.

"If I want to see a single molecule or understand how it functions inside a cell, I don't have the technology to do that right now," said Dennis Matthews, director of the new center and an expert on lasers and optics at LLNL.

"I can only look at cellular functions in past time. That's because scientists have to take a cell out of an organism, freeze, stain and slice it before it can be viewed under a microscope. That doesn't give a clear enough picture of what's going on inside the cell and how it is interacting with other cells around it," he said.

"Through the power of biophotonics and some of the new technologies that we're developing, we will be able to see the cell while it's living, talking and interacting with other cells around it," Matthews said.

Physicians and scientists at UC Davis and LLNL are already testing new microscopes that can more clearly distinguish cancerous and healthy tissue. Plans are under way to develop a hand-held pathogen detection unit to immediately identify the presence of potentially infectious agents, from anthrax to smallpox.

"The biophotonics field is innovative and its applications are far-reaching," said Bill Goldstein, associate director of LLNL's physics and advanced technologies directorate.

"The laboratory is pleased to be a partner in this endeavor. The center strengthens ties to UC Davis that have always been a major asset to the laboratory," Goldstein said.

The center's major focus will be to collaborate with industry to accelerate biophotonics technology development and deliver this new technology into the hands of health-care providers. UC Davis will be the West Coast hub for biophotonics research that business partners can use to make new, leading-edge medical devices.

"NSF Science and Technology Centers are very prestigious, but most importantly, they spur research, technology development, education and industry around them," Matthews said. "UC Davis and the Sacramento area are destined to become an important BioZone, a biotech industry and research Mecca."

In addition to research and development, NSF also expects the centers to find innovative ways of training young scientists, improving diversity in the scientific workforce and fostering public understanding of science. A major thrust of the UC Davis center is to spark an interest in science in children and young adults so that they can become tomorrow's science and technology leaders.

To achieve those aims, educational partners in the center include Mills College, Oakland; DQ University, Davis; Las Positas Community College, Livermore; Los Rios Community College, Sacramento; and local schools including Oakridge High School; Sacramento High School; Kit Carson Middle School; Keith B. Kenny Elementary School; Marion Anderson Elementary School; and the Tahoe Marian Healthy Start Family Resource Center.

The center will launch a new curriculum, called "Stepping Stones to Biophotonics Science and Technology," for children and youth ages 5 to 18. This curriculum will offer hands-on science activities promoting scientific inquiry and concept development.

UC Davis will develop undergraduate and graduate courses in biophotonics, including a new mentoring program called "shadow a scientist."

The center also will work with minorities and women to ensure that the next generation of scientists is a diverse group. Several of the participating institutions serve predominantly minority and female populations.

UC Davis was one of six universities chosen by the NSF this year to establish a science and technology center. The other grantees will use the money to explore topics from space weather to water purification systems. All of the new centers have multiple institutional partners.

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