Faculty Spotlight: Bruce Tromberg

Faculty Spotlight
September 1, 2016 By Applied Innovation

At the time Bruce Tromberg began his academic career at UCI as a postdoctoral scholar in 1988, the market for his research, lasers and optics in biology and medicine, was extremely small.

Despite the apparent low market value for such work, the University and BLI founders, Prof. Michael Berns and Prof. Arnold Beckman, saw the significance and worth in investing in the fields of optics and photonics. The founding researchers knew that light could be a very powerful and elegant scientific tool for studying the human body. It can be both a means for taking measurements in tissues, as well as a therapeutic input for addressing diseases and cancer. Tromberg explains that chemicals inside the body have “spectral fingerprints,” which absorb and subsequently reflect light, noninvasively providing precise measurements of naturally occurring molecules, such as molecular oxygen, sugars, and proteins, as well as structural and functional information. Conversely, if these molecules are exogenous therapeutic agents, they can be modulated with light to controllably drive chemical reactions or generate heat or force in the body.

The confidence and persistence of the early pioneers in photonics and optics paid off.  The research areas have grown tremendously since the late 1980’s, when the worldwide workforce in the fields comprised of just a couple hundred researchers, building their own microscopes and equipment.  Currently, photonics and optics are a $3 trillion industry just in the U.S., employing thousands of researchers in many different countries. Tromberg recalls that technologies, including those developed at BLI, “when they were first developed, didn’t have an obvious market or an obvious application…but if you can establish the company and advance the technology so that it works better and better, understand it more, make it move towards a more mature technology, a mature platform, then the rest of the world will catch up with it.”  The knowledge gained in the recent decades has produced light-based technologies that are small, portable, and more energy efficient, accurate, and precise than what was imagined when the BLI was formed.

Occurring simultaneously with the growth of the photonics and optics fields, Tromberg made significant advances in his career and for the BLI.  Following his postdoctoral work, Tromberg maintained his ties with UCI, becoming a professor at the Institute. He eventually became the Director in 2003, leading with the same optimistic perspective seeded in the early years of the Institute. For this reason, BLI continues to be a center of innovation in optics and photonics, especially for biological and medical applications.  He describes the tradition of collaboration at BLI and how scientists with disparate backgrounds in biology, chemistry, engineering, medicine, and physics can come together and find success; “Everybody is here with a slightly different perspective and point of view from the types of problems they’re interested in solving, but are banded together in their excitement and passion for optics and photonics technologies to solve a variety of different problems.”

Tromberg propels the success of his and BLI’s research efforts beyond the benchtop by ensuring that the Institute ultimately has its eye on translating technologies to the clinic and the market. The first step toward this goal is the BLI’s relationship with UCI’s technology transfer office, dubbed the Invention Transfer Group (ITG).  ITG, previously named the Office of Technology Alliances, is now a unit of Applied Innovation and is charged with managing the intellectual property portfolios of UCI inventors. This responsibility involves assessing patentability and commercial potential of inventions, and facilitating their licensing to industry.

The most recent developments to transition out of the Tromberg lab and be licensed to a company is a medical device used for diffuse optical spectroscopic imaging (DOSI). Infit & Co., a start-up company incubated at LG labs, is interested in revolutionizing medical care by employing new imaging techniques for diagnostics. This year, Infit finalized agreements with UCI to exclusively license inventions relating to a DOSI device developed by Prof. Tromberg, along with Prof. Michael Berns and electrical engineer Prof. Pai Chou. The instrument allows researchers and clinicians to measure molecules inside a person’s body in a non-invasive manner. Doctoral candidate and BLI researcher, Robert Warren, describes the unique capabilities of the device as being able to “turn the human body into a cuvette.” Rather than taking fluid samples or tissue biopsies from a patient, the instrument uses light-based methods to obtain signals from molecules inside the body. By shining light through the skin at rapid intervals, up to 500 million times per second, the device and accompanying software can mathematically separate the light scattering events from the light absorbing events. This renders the noise signals from the tissues “transparent”, and yields just those from the chemicals within.

The success of BLI technologies can also be attributed to the collaboration from the business communities local to Southern California, a region rich in business ventures concerning pharmaceuticals and biomedical devices. Prof. Tromberg explains that “it’s not just being innovative; it’s recognizing the innovations that we’re driving here could have a broader impact.” This recognition requires input from both the researchers, university, and leaders in business and industry. Applied Innovation serves as a bridge to foster the connections between campus researchers and the entrepreneurial and corporate communities. From these relationships, the commercialization process is streamlined to the benefit of the partners involved, and ultimately, the public.

To learn more about the Beckman Laser Institute, please visit: bli.uci.edu
If interested in licensing UCI technologies, please visit: innovation.uci.edu/tech