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Live long and prosper with this laser device

13 June 2018

A new machine has been unveiled by Aston University which could allow doctors to carry out a battery of health checks with a beam of light.

The laser-based system, developed by researchers at Aston University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, uses light beams to perform painless, non-invasive checks on medical indicators such as cardiovascular performance and other key metabolic information, which can be useful looking at energy levels or diet balance.

The tests, which take just minutes, can help assess variables such as regulatory rhythms, the metabolic activity of tissue (eg how effectively tissues are consuming oxygen) and a range of tissue biomarkers (providing evidence of a particular disease or physiological state) – and no needles are necessary.

Professor Edik Rafailov, of Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies (AIPT), said: ‘This technology will allow a range of tests to be taken quickly, painlessly and without any reason for patients to feel nervous – there are no needles involved. Results are instantaneous, which is better for patients and more efficient for healthcare providers.’

The device uses three separate lasers and several techniques to carry out its analysis:

- Laser doppler flowmetry to look at variables such as how effectively a subject’s blood is being delivered to their tissue

- Tissue oxymetry to measure levels of oxygen in blood vessels and tissue

- Tissue fluorescence to assess cell metabolism, a technique useful in areas such as obesity prognosis and cancer diagnosis

The tests involve nothing more stressful than a laser beam being shone on a patient’s skin – the patient feels nothing. The results are processed by a computer there and then, and displayed as easy-to-interpret graphs.

Dr Sergei Sokolovsky, Senior Research Fellow at AIPT, said: ‘We have managed to bring together multiple technologies in a machine that is compact, simple to use and – from a patient’s perspective – extremely user-friendly. It is a huge step forward in terms of improving the speed of diagnostic work and also in terms of reducing invasive tests.’

The machine has already been used as part of the diagnostic procedure for strokes and skin cancers. For example, it can constantly monitor blood delivery above the eyebrows, helping doctors mitigate the risk of stroke in patients with hypertension. And it is a high-precision way of identifying the boundaries of head and neck skin cancers, helping surgeons avoid tumour reoccurrence and reducing the need for additional cosmetic surgery.

The device also has non-medical applications. The data it provides can help athletes determine their optimal levels of physical exercise, helping to prevent stress and exhaustion. 

A prototype of a wearable monitor has been developed that athletes can simply wear on their wrists, like other fitness monitoring devices. Such a device could also be extremely useful for diagnostic work away from surgeries and hospitals, taking us closer to the ‘medical tricorder’ device made famous by the Star Trek series.

Much of the technology is ready to go into production now, and Aston recently launched Aston Medical Technology to commercialise inventions such as this.


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