Biophotonics emerges as new force in Australian science

By Pete Young
Monday, 05 August, 2002

Bolstered by rising interest in the fusion of optics and biology, Australia's biophotonics community is lifting its game.

Research groups around the country are moving to collaborate with each other and industry in order to leverage their individual strengths.

The latest illustration of the trend is an application for ARC funding for a biophotonics centre of excellence centred at the University of Western Australia and with nodes at Swinburne and Sydney universities.

A driving force behind the submission is Prof David Sampson of UWA's Optical and Biomedical Engineering Lab (OBEL). Other groups are Swinburne's Centre for Micro-Photonics under Prof Min Gu and Sydney University's Physical Optics Department headed by Prof Colin Sheppard.

They are proposing a Centre for Biophotonics to research fundamental interactions of light with biological media and focusing on applications in the biological sciences, biomedicine and biotechnology.

The centre would assemble interdisciplinary teams combining expertise in photonics and optics, imaging and computer science, and life science and biomedicine.

The application claims the centre would stimulate Australia's embryonic biophotonics industry to generate commercial activity with a high technology and export orientation.

Biophotonics is an enabling discipline encompassing imaging modalities, optical microscopy, linear and non-linear spectroscopy, as well as laser and light-based processes.

The centre of excellence bid is the second major indication in the last six months that the biophotonics community is aware of its growing strength.

Last February, a number of its major players met in a two-day forum to canvass the possibility of creating a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) built around biophotonics.

Besides the centre of excellence backers, the meeting drew Prof Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop, director of Queensland University's Centre for Biophotonics and Laser Science, and Dr Simon Fleming of the Australian Photonics CRC.

Corporates represented included Johnson & Johnson, Redfern Polymer Optics, Q-Vis, Polartechnics, Optiscan, Iatia and Xcell Diagnostics.

The CRC idea was ultimately dropped because of time pressures to match the diverse objectives of the small to medium enterprises in the set of potential corporate partners, many of whom were themselves in start-up phase.

On the other hand, the meeting demonstrated the surprising depth and breadth of biophotonics interest across the country and led to the current centre of excellence bid, Sampson said.

It proposes the centre be established at UWA with nodes elsewhere in the county, notably the University of Sydney and Swinburne. The meeting also illuminated where common interests lay, he said.

"There was strong interest in tissue optics as a broad underpinning discipline that will provide benefits to a large number of players," said Sampson.

The sessions also highlighted the potential for biophotonics to contribute to biotech applications such as parallel multi-assay diagnostics and advanced imaging systems.

Sampson's Optical and Biomedical Engineering Lab is applying its research in optical coherence tomography and diffuse reflectance spectroscopy to optical biopsy (non-invasive optical diagnosis of humans).

The thrust of its work is to combine photonics with engineering in terms of biomedicine and developing instruments that can be taken into clinics and GPs' rooms.

Sampson believes the centre of excellence model - which is oriented toward a single underpinning technology - provides a better match for the biophotonics community at present than a CRC, which generally targets a single industry but takes in a sweep of different technologies.

Of the other groups backing the proposal, Swinburne's CMP has extensive experience with two-photon microscopy while Sydney's Physical Optics department has expertise in confocal microscopy.

Queensland's Centre for Biophotonics and Laser Science, which is working on laser tweezers, decided not to participate in the centre of excellence application.

But a laser researcher at the centre, Assoc Prof Norman Heckenberg, agrees the biophotonics field in Australia is undergoing "an exponential improvement."

The time appears to be ripe for expansion because emphasis is shifting among photonics researchers to biological applications from pure physics, Heckenberg says.

"Both ourselves and Prof Min Gu's group for a number of years have been dabbling in doing physics," he says. "But we have now both decided to move more strongly in the biological direction and explicitly call our work as biophotonics."

His own centre is a prime example of the expansionist tide in biophotonics. It is currently interviewing for five new positions, including postdoc and lecturer positions plus a marketing manager.

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