Using the science of light to save lives

A women in a lab with a blue light in backgroundHanan Anis uses a portable CARS (coherent anti-Stokes Raman scattering) microscope in her biophotonics research.

“I’ve always felt there’s a disconnect between academia and industry. My interest is in how to actually translate all this research into something that is useful to people.”

– Hanan Anis

Timing is critical during open-heart surgery. While surgeons work on a patient’s heart, his blood pumps through a machine. To prevent blood clotting during the procedure, doctors administer an anti-coagulant called heparin. But it currently takes an average of eight minutes to check if the amount of heparin is right, a considerable span when you’re working to save a life.

Hanan Anis, an engineering professor at the University of Ottawa, is developing technology to offer constant, real-time monitoring so doctors know immediately if they should add more anti-coagulant. An expert in biophotonics, Anis is applying the science of light — photonics — to medicine to design a new generation of tools for doctors and medical researchers.

To measure heparin more efficiently, she is improving an old technique called Raman spectroscopy. This method gauges the characteristic shift in frequency of a small portion of light shone on molecules, letting doctors, for example, know how much heparin is in a blood sample.

Instead of putting a few drops of a blood sample into a glass tube and shining light through it, Anis’ team fills hollow fibre optic cables with the sample. The light travels through the length of the cables, interacting with molecules over a much greater distance and giving a clearer signal, a more effective solution for medical situations like surgery.

Anis is also working on a way to track the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS) in the greatest detail possible to help scientists develop better treatments. Ideally, the course of this neurological disease could be observed continuously at a microscopic scale in a living animal model, instead of the current method of examining the spinal cords of dead mice with different stages of MS.

The professor’s idea is to use a type of microscopy called Coherent Anti-Stokes Raman Scattering (CARS). Researchers would attach a CARS microscope slightly larger than a USB stick to a living mouse and monitor the progression of the disease, cell by cell, over the course of the animal’s life.

Finally, Anis is working to improve femtosecond lasers, a fundamental tool for medical research which also has important commercial applications, from precision cutting metal in the auto industry to laser eye surgery. These lasers pulse so quickly (at a quadrillionth of a second) that they do not cause heat damage as they cut through material. But they are bulky, finicky to use and expensive — Anis bought hers second-hand for $100,000.

“As long as biophotonics is driven by these beasts, it’s not going to go to hospital bedsides anytime soon,” says Anis.

In her lab, a large optics table houses the solid state laser and a score of lenses clamped in a precise configuration. Beside the table is a prototype of its successor, which Anis designed. It is the size of a briefcase; fibre optic cables replace the lenses. Anis predicts this new version will sell for about $10,000, will be much simpler to use and will be portable.

It’s the type of innovation that Hanan Anis will work hard to push to the marketplace, as she continues to explore how the science of light can change the way researchers study diseases and, ultimately, improves medical care. 

 

Two hats

Biophotonics isn’t Hanan Anis’ only field of expertise. She came to the University of Ottawa in 2004 with extensive entrepreneurial experience, having co-founded Ceyba, an Ottawa-based fibre optic telecom company.

“I’ve always felt there’s a disconnect between academia and industry,” says Anis. “My interest is in how to actually translate all this research into something that is useful to people.”

For the past year and a half, Anis has led an entrepreneurship program for engineering students at the University. “Students come to me with an idea,” she explains, “and I help them develop the idea so they can launch a company.”

Mohsen Badv has recently completed a Master of Engineering in engineering management. He says the entrepreneurship course was extremely helpful. Through case studies and guest speakers— accomplished Ottawa entrepreneurs—he and the other students became “really well educated on how successful start-ups do things.”

Anis helped Badv build a business plan for a website called iGroce, which will let consumers compare grocery prices, make online orders to six major stores and provide pickup locations. Encouraged by his mentor, he has entered entrepreneurship competitions and has secured $3,000 in start-up capital.

“It’s very exciting,” says Anis. “A lot of engineers have the technical know-how, but don’t know how to turn it into a business and think they can’t do it. This course removes that barrier.”

 

By Ben Williamson

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