4 ways nanotech can improve biophotonics

Biophotonics involves applying light, biology, and life sciences to study, manipulate or engineer biological processes. Ongoing research positions nanotechnology and biophotonics as a useful pairing that could pioneer scientific advancements. Many applications of nanotechnology in biophotonics could have massive impacts ON society and dramatically change health care and treatment, in particular. Although research is still in the very early stages, here are four examples that indicate how the application of laser-driven biophotonics and nanotechnology together could achieve better health outcomes.

4 ways nanotech can improve biophotonics

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Nanotechnology in biophotonics may restore sight

The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates at least 2.2 billion people globally have a vision impairment. The statistics also reveal that 1 billion of those individuals have a vision impairment that treatment could have prevented or live with unaddressed problems. The interventions vary depending on the diagnosis, but in many cases, the main goal is to stop the vision impairment from worsening rather than trying to improve it.

In eye disorders such as age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, the primary issue is the breakdown of photoreceptors that allow bipolar cells to receive light-dependent input from synapses. A European Union-funded project aims to artificially reproduce the synaptic input and enable the eye’s bipolar cells to receive it again.

The multidisciplinary team, comprised of people from six European institutions, will create a retinal neuroprosthesis nanodevice that will partially rely on residual functionality in diseased retinas and use various technologies to make inner retinal neurons reactive. The scientists explained that they will use various technologies to restore the activation of inner retinal neurons. They also noted that light exposure would cause the neurons to activate with a resolution comparable to what the cones in the middle of the retina can do. The outcome, said researchers, is high-resolution vision.

Work on this project is still in the early stages. However, some of the current priorities are to improve previously demonstrated hollow plasmonic nanochannels that will enhance the light’s electromagnetic field and allow the researchers to interact with neurons on a nanoscale.

They’re also experimenting with using the nanochannels to release an injection of glutamate, the main neurotransmitter at the retinal level that becomes excited through optical stimulation. If the researchers can make this happen, it would mimic the physiological processes that occur in non-diseased eyes. This is a four-year project that will involve testing the prototypes on primates and rodents before trying them on humans.

Improve testing

The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing health crisis that has dramatically reshaped the world. In the interest of managing the public health aspects as effectively as possible, researchers have investigated better ways of testing for the virus. Experts have long said that testing is one of the key components of keeping the virus at bay, as long as infected individuals take care not to spread the virus to others. Laser-driven biophotonics often plays a role in these enhancements.

For example, one 2020 achievement involved using Raman spectroscopy to test for COVID-19. Two of the main advantages of this method are that it gives results in approximately five minutes through a highly portable format. The team who developed this approach said it would be particularly useful in large settings, such as sports stadiums, airports, and schools.

The life sciences industry often uses laser microscopes to create high-resolution cell images. Researchers realized that nanophotonic biosensors could offer another kind of specificity by checking for COVID-19 faster than current methods of testing allow.

They also recognized the need to develop a rational design for these tests and were hopeful that succeeding in that regard would lead to multiple benefits, including the rapid detection and identification of the virus. It also would allow handling genomic analysis and performing serological assays in a single platform. In that case, lab workers could raise their productivity.

Enhance cancer diagnosis

Researchers have explored using light-driven biophotonics to enhance cancer diagnostics. For example, Raman spectroscopy can achieve up to 98% accuracy when differentiating between healthy tissue and a tumor. Industry players said it is still challenging to use this diagnostic method on patients, but they see the potential benefit.

In one case, researchers discovered that using biophotonics enabled a faster and less-invasive way to detect colorectal cancer. It also provided real-time information that doctors could use to make informed decisions about how to proceed with their care.

When combined with nanotechnology, research has shown better outcomes for patients. For example, nanotechnology has resulted in better contrast agents that enable earlier and more accurate initial cancer diagnosis. Additionally, research is underway to use nanotechnology to detect blood biomarkers, giving doctors yet another way to Screen for cancer.

Drug-delivery opportunities

The medical industry continues to work on improving drug administration methods for patients. They must stay mindful of many things, which includes making sure that medication gets properly absorbed and patients take their prescribed treatments. Evidence suggests nanotechnology in biophotonics could provide new advancements in drug delivery mechanisms.

For example, one research review investigated the potential of nanoagents that respond to near-infrared rays used for drug delivery to the brain. Researchers specified that people should  focus their future research efforts on applications that involve the second and third spectral windows, spanning from 1100-1870 nanometers.

They clarified that investigations have thus far involved the first spectral window, which ranges from 700 to 1000 nanometers. However, only working with applications associated with the first spectral window limits potential opportunities. The researchers also noted how further work must occur to see the impact of transient or intermittent near-infrared rays on the brain’s physiology and whether reducing the ray exposure could prevent potential tissue damage caused by overheating.

Elsewhere, researchers investigated an all-optical method that combined fiber-optic tweezers with laser Raman microspectroscopy. This approach allows targeting single cancer cells for specific drug delivery. Moreover, this method provides flexibility in both drug delivery and release since medical practitioners can turn the laser beam on and off to manipulate the outcomes as needed.

Efforts like these are still in the early stages. However, they’re undoubtedly promising because they could give doctors more options in how they treat individual patients. That’s vital since treatment effectiveness often depends on particulars such as the location of a tumor and the overall progression of a disease. Nanotechnology in biophotonics could create new, highly personalized treatment pathways.

Biophotonics and nanotechnology show promise

When people have debilitating or life-altering conditions, they often hope for quick access to effective treatments that could help them survive longer. These examples show how photonics, laser-driven biophotonics, and nanotechnology could change the health-care landscape for the better. That’s true whether it relates to diagnosing COVID-19 accurately and efficiently or breaking new ground in DNA sequencing, cancer diagnoses, and care methods.

Most of the possibilities explored here are not ready for the mainstream. Scientists might find that some of the laser-driven biophotonics options that showed the most potential in the lab were not as promising in the real world. Alternatively, they could discover that some of the technologies are exceptionally challenging to scale, making it less likely they’ll have commercial applications and appeal.

Even so, it’s clear that nanotechnology in biophotonics deserves ongoing attention. The more scientists learn about these technologies, the more likely they’ll find feasible ways to use them. When that happens, society at large will benefit from the progress.

About the author

Emily Newton is a technical writer and the editor-in-chief of Revolutionized. She enjoys researching and writing about how technology is changing the industrial sector.