Light science aids life science

By Pete Young
Tuesday, 19 February, 2002

A $1.6 million research centre in Queensland will put advanced photonics tools like laser tweezers in the hands of life science researchers.

Optical tweezers - the use of laser beams to trap small particles - are potentially powerful mechanisms for manipulating biological substances at the cell level.

They will be part of the armoury of the new Centre for Biophotonics and Laser Science at the University of Queensland.

The facility will foster collaborations between physicists and bioscientists, says centre director Prof Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop.

In particular, it will cooperate closely with one of Queensland's premier bio-science research facilities, the Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

Projects under consideration include cell and DNA studies, cancer diagnosis, drug delivery systems and the distribution of drugs through membranes as well as dentistry and anatomy.

Much of the new facility's deployment of light science to assist life science will be angled toward imaging and microscopy.

That includes two-photon confocal microscopy conducted with very fast lasers, a technique which allows researchers to study the progress of chemical reactions at femtosecond (thousandth of a nanosecond) intervals.

Optical tweezers which 'grip' particles enable researchers to measure forces as small as one millionth of a millionth of a Newton.

Measuring rotational forces through laser technology is a special area of expertise for the UQ physics department, which Rubinsztein-Dunlop also heads.

Rotational measurements are valuable when assessing the dynamic properties of biological cells and solutions, she said.

A leading UQ laser researcher, Assoc Prof Norman Heckenberg, spent a sabbatical last year in the biology department of New York's Columbia University.

The experience taught him "how difficult biology can be for physicists...the best way to work on biological applications is through collaboration," Heckenberg said.

Funding for the new centre will be spread over three years and comes primarily from a UQ strategic initiative fund controlled by the vice-chancellor.

It will be advertising four new positions: a professorship in biophysics, a lectureship and two post-doctoral positions.

Harnessing the physics of light to the demands of bioscience is producing promising results elsewhere.

Researchers at Rice University in Texas have used laser technology to show that 'stretch' properties of healthy cells and cancer cells are markedly different. The technique could enable a much earlier diagnosis of the onset of cancer than is now possible.

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