Beckman Laser Institute Celebrates 30 Years of Invention: Technologies Outdoing Hollywood’s Imaginings

Past Tides
March 29, 2017 By Applied Innovation

As Arnold Beckman’s friend and Beckman Laser Institute co-founder Michael W. Berns, professor of surgery and biomedical engineering, recalled, Dr. Beckman had several practical talents. After the Marines, Beckman supported himself on a cross- country trip to do his doctorate at CalTech by playing piano in silent movie houses. An inveterate problem solver, the chemical engineering professor developed a prototype pH meter, the first of many inventions that launched Beckman Instruments.

The human stories behind BLI’s technologies were recounted at the Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic (BLI) 30th anniversary celebration, “Multiple Reflections,” on February 9, 2017 when UCI senior leadership, faculty, staff, regional business and community leaders gathered to share a new vision for the BLI’s future.

Beckman, through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, provided the original financial gift to create the BLI as an interdisciplinary center at UCI for the development and application of optical technologies in biology and medicine. He liked to donate money in the form of matching grants, challenging recipients to be as invested as he was in the venture. At the celebration, Berns announced a $1 million grant to the BLI from the Beckman Laser Institute Foundation. With a smile, in the tradition of Arnold Beckman, Berns challenged UCI to match it.

Bruce J. Tromberg, Ph.D, professor of biomedical engineering and surgery and BLI director, discussed the importance of optics and photonics for UCI, Orange County, and the nation. “UCI has played a key role in helping drive the enormous growth of this field, particularly in the context of human health,” Tromberg said. “We are at a critical point in history, and fueled by major technologic and cultural changes, we will be embarking on a path forward that is as bold and visionary as the founding of the BLI.”

For technical perspective, Tromberg showed a clip from the 1980s Hollywood flick, “Real Genius” in which a youthful Val Kilmer gleefully blasts a huge hole in the wall with a monster laser beam that billows fumes. Laser and photonics technologies have since improved, Tromberg deadpanned. Gone are special power requirements, the massive cooling tank on the roof.

“Light sources and lasers are going through a revolution,” said Tromberg. “Again. They have never stopped being revolutionary. But we are looking at them now with new materials, new capabilities, and new manufacturing.”

Improved technology means not having to whack the optical table anymore.

Tromberg recalled that early femtosecond lasers didn’t always function predictably. “When they’d stop mode- locking, you’d have to hit the optical table to get them to start pulsing again.” Femtosecond laser pulses of one millionth of a billionth of a second are now used in routine LASIK eye surgery, the most popular elective procedure in the world. Lasers incorporating biological cells or delicate strands of glass are used in basic research, in vitro diagnostics, in vivo imaging, and in image-guided therapy and surgery. Fiber optic lasers are used to diagnose arterial plaque and repair damaged skin. The commercial impact of photonics technologies in the life sciences and medicine is currently estimated at over $80 billion annually.

Tromberg predicts miniaturized portable femtosecond lasers are on the way. “It is inconceivable to somebody my age,” said Tromberg. “But it is real. It can happen. And it will happen. It is not just the emergence of femtosecond technology. It is also super-continuum sources, lasers that emit at all wavelengths, and miniature narrow band semiconductor lasers.”

But Tromberg notes that while UCI has strengths in biophotonics, the campus needs to bolster its fundamental laser physics capabilities. For the next generation of ideas and technologies, it must strengthen its applied physics and engineering.

Introducing COSI

Tromberg introduced UCI Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Enrique Lavernia, Ph.D., who announced the “Convergence Optical Sciences Initiative (COSI),” an $8 million UCI investment in optics and photonics. COSI will partner with BLI and the schools of Engineering, Physical Science, Biological Science, Medicine, Information and Computer Science, and Business, and work with UCI Applied Innovation and the Cove to bring new technologies to market. Over the next five years, COSI will hire at least five new faculty and create a dedicated space for academic/industry collaboration and engagement.

COSI will focus on developing and commercializing biophotonics technologies for human health, research, and medical devices. “Our goal is to create exciting new opportunities with a broader impact on scientific discovery and human health,” said Lavernia. COSI- generated photonics expertise will benefit UCI programs, such as the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, the Edwards Lifesciences Center for Advanced Cardiovascular Technology, as well as further innovation and commercialization in cardiology, neurology, cancer, and sports medicine.

“COSI will draw people who are developing revolutionary new light sources and imaging technologies, innovators who are developing new methods and technologies to find and cure disease, and entrepreneurs who will accelerate the translation and impact of our work via commercialization, said Lavernia. “We believe this is a powerful strategic approach for UCI to build new human and intellectual capital that will substantially strengthen our region.”

Could biophotonics prevent disease?

The stretch goal articulated by more than one of the evening’s participants is to deploy lasers and photonics for disease prevention and early detection. “The ability to better diagnose and fashion treatments for diseases that have gone on without adequate interventional treatment options is an area where I think the intersection between photonics and laser technology is going to have an impact,” said Vice Chancellor, Health Affairs and CEO, UCI Health System, Dr. Howard J. Federoff. “Increasingly more so as we understand more about the etiology or underlying basis of disease.” According to Federoff, the potential is to develop non-invasive, low cost screening technologies to detect diseases preclinically, before a doctor sees them. Federoff cited skin diseases and malformations, screening for microscopic melanoma before it comes to clinical attention and using near-infrared light for non-invasive brain imaging. “I think this is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg,” said Federoff.


According to Pramod P. Khargonekar, Ph.D., UCI vice chancellor for research, convergence can lead to breakthroughs when engineers, chemists, and physicists collaborate with biologists and practicing physicians. Optics, photonics and imaging technologies could have a tremendous impact on cancer, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, and cardiovascular disease. “We still think of therapies and diagnostics, but I can imagine a future using these non-invasive techniques of photonics and optics,” said Khargonekar. “You could detect initiation of disease and use that to take steps to prevent full-blown occurrence. That would be an amazing breakthrough.”

Reshaping noses, preserving brain function and building artificial pancreases

Attendees toured 17 interactive technology demonstrations featuring applications by BLI faculty. The lab of Brian Wong, M.D., Ph.D., professor of otolaryngology, BME, and surgery demonstrated bioelectric technologies combined with biophotonic imaging that could lead to new minimally-invasive surgical approaches for repairing and remodeling cartilage, tendon, ligament, skin, and fat.

The lab of Elliot Botvinick, Ph.D., associate professor of BME and surgery is developing an artificial pancreas for type 1 diabetics. Current techniques of transplanting insulin-producing beta cells in an alginate casing to protect them from the immune system have spotty success as the beta cells in the center of the capsule tend to die of oxygen deprivation.

Instead, the Botvinick lab will implant patients with scaffolds that house pancreatic islet cells combined with oxygen-sensing microparticles. Optical sensing of microparticle activity is used to monitor oxygen levels and blood vessel growth. “It is like building the house first, and then moving in,” said John Weidling, Ph.D, a staff member. Rachel Gurlin, a graduate student, has just published her first paper on the new approach. Her sister has type 1 diabetes. “I cannot imagine studying anything else,” said Gurlin.

The multiplier effect of COSI

“If you think about the fundamental technology that BLI has embraced and leverages every day, it not only has benefit for patient outcomes, but it also has implications in other fields,” said Bob Phillippy, former president and CEO of Newport Corporation. “The technologies that are used to create consumer devices can also create medical devices as well. Behind it all is photonic technology and it is the fundamental nature of light being behind the scenes, in many cases, ubiquitously deployed, to be able to do the work faster. You hear the speed of light. Literally. Harnessing that technology and leveraging its capabilities is something that is really significant. Not just for the community. You are talking about world-changing things here.”

“We already have seen the incredible trajectories and impressive impact of BLI-generated technologies on the local healthcare economy,” said Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of UCI Applied Innovation, Richard Sudek. “Orange County has over 300 medical device companies that depend on innovation as their lifeblood. It is our mission to get these technologies from the lab to commercialization. We bridge that last step—implementation—by supporting BLI researchers and fostering the networks of entrepreneurship: partnerships, licensing, and industry-sponsored research with companies and researchers. As COSI accelerates the rate of innovation generation, we are partnering with the BLI to ensure that more of these promising technologies get to market.”

What sets BLI apart?

Since its opening in 1986, the Beckman Laser Institute has grown to 20 faculty and approximately 150 staff, students, and research fellows. Unique among biophotonics centers, the BLI combines active technology development and innovation with clinical practice. BLI’s world- famous Packard Clinic uses laser technology to treat disfiguring birthmarks in infants and children—over 90,000 patients to date.

BLI Medical Director Dr. J. Stuart Nelson has developed dynamic cooling technology installed in more than 25,000 medical lasers around the world. This innovation has enabled therapies for a variety of skin diseases that were previously untreatable, improving the lives of tens of millions of patients, particularly infants and young children with disfiguring vascular birthmarks – and has furnished nearly half of all UCI patent royalties to date.

The BLI clinic currently supports approximately 40 institutional review board clinical protocols. Hundreds of patients annually enroll in studies evaluating light-based diagnostic and therapeutic technologies to treat conditions including skin diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic disease, trauma and critical care, neurologic function, head and neck surgery, and exercise medicine.

The BLI helped pioneer new technologies in cancer photonics and photomedicine for UCI’s NCI-designated Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Institute for Clinical Translational Science (ICTS). Since its inception, the BLI has functioned as a division of the Department of Surgery, training UCI’s first M.D./Ph.D. grads in electrical engineering and physics, and current physician-scientists in biomedical engineering.


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