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CCNY's Robert Alfano wins first biomedical optics award

A scientific innovator from The City College of New York (CCNY) whose research unites the divergent fields of medicine, biology and high-speed laser physics will be honored this month for his pioneering work in biomedical optics by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

SPIE will present Dr. Robert Alfano, CUNY Distinguished Professor of Science and Engineering at CCNY, with the first annual Britton Chance Biomedical Optics Award January 23 at the SPIE Photonics West Conference in San Francisco.

The Britton Chance Biomedical Optics Award "honors contributions to optical methods and devices that have significant promise to accelerate or have already facilitated new discoveries in biology or medicine," according to SPIE. Specifically, Professor Alfano and his colleagues use optical spectroscopy to make smarter tools to detect and image cancer.

"I am elated," Professor Alfano said. "It shows that people believe what we're doing will help people."

"Both Britt (Britton Chance) and Bob were original pioneers of our field and their work has had an extraordinary impact. Bob has helped accelerate the growth of biomedical optics and biophotonicsmuch like Professor Chance, through his passion to develop new optical instruments," said Dr. Bruce Tromberg, the chair of SPIE's award subcommittee.

Professor Alfano's work essentially uses the color of light emitted and scattered from cells and tissues in place of surgical biopsies and other conventional diagnostic techniques. The non-invasive "optical biopsy" method gives molecular information on the spot. His techniques can eliminate the wait for test results and reduce the physical trauma of surgery, since there is no need to remove tissue unless cancer is found.

"This field was nonexistent before 1984. That's when we discovered you could use the colors of light to detect cancer," Professor Alfano said. He has collaborated first with Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and later with other area medical centers to test breast, cervix and liver tissue samples.

"When you shine a little light on the tissue it glows," he explained. He found that different combinations of molecules on healthy and cancerous samples produced specific spectral emissions when excited by a laser. "The colors of the emissions are different. If the molecules are good you get one glow, if they're bad you get another. It's like a fingerprint," he added. "In that glow is all the information you need about the molecules that are there."

In 1991 Professor Alfano and his colleagues extended their early work using another optical technique called Raman scattering, which doesn't rely on fluorescence and has a higher resolution and sharper spectral lines to detect differences between cancerous, precancerous, and normal tissue. More recently, his lab has been refining cancer detection using Stokes shift spectroscopy, which combines absorption and fluorescence for a higher degree of accuracy.

Professor Alfano also co-discovered the supercontinuum ultrafast white light source, among other achievements recognized by the award, which spans from the visible to the near-infrared part of the light spectrum. The discovery enabled research resulting in two Nobel Prizes. The winner of the Chemistry Nobel in 1999 used the supercontinuum to monitor chemical reactions. Winners of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics tapped it to create the most accurate clock in existence. Others, Japanese researchers in particular, are using the supercontinuum in communications to boost available channels and bandwidth (into the terabits per second range.)

Professor Alfano has published more than 700 papers, and has 108 patents and more than 11,000 citations. He praises his many colleagues, post-doctoral researchers, graduate and undergraduate students for their many contributions to the research, as well as a person key to converting countless ideas and designs into working hardware at the Institute for Ultrafast Spectroscopy and Lasers at CCNY. "Yuri Bundansky -- my technician and the optical mechanical engineer who does the crucial building -- was the secret," said Professor Alfano. "He has been with me 30 years and he is amazing."

The most recent achievement was the approval of a patent for a pill-sized cancer detection device. He won't stop there. "Someday," he mused, "I want to have a cell phone to diagnose cancer."

Contact: Jessa Netting
City College of New York

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