Solving Health Problems Across the Spectrum

Tuan Vo-Dinh and collaborators at Duke’s Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics are moving the field of photonics forward fast, developing an array of optical technologies that make detecting and treating disease faster, cheaper, more accurate and less invasive.

For instance, Vo-Dinh developed a nanoprobe with a 50-nanometer tip, small enough to “see” inside a living cell without harming it. The nanoprobe also can be used to detect at a single-cell level the effectiveness of photodynamic therapy drugs to treat cancer. Tumors absorb the drugs, which absorb light to trigger the signal for producing toxic singlet oxygen, leading to cell death.

Vo-Dinh and his postdoctoral associate Hsin-Neng Wang are also working with Duke medical researchers to develop tools that can detect disease based on the unique ways various biomarkers interact with plasmonic metal nanoparticles to reflect light. For example, by using an inexpensive, miniaturized optical reader to examine biopsied patient tissue extracts, the Vo-Dinh group and gastroenterologists Dr. Katherine Garman and Dr. Anna Mae Diehl can detect a quick color change that can indicate gastrointestinal cancer.

Vo-Dinh has also been working with Drs. Geoffrey Ginsburg, Christopher Woods and Aimee Zaas at Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy to develop a sensor chip for rapidly detecting biomarkers of infectious diseases.

“The convergence of new technologies will enable us to produce low-cost, sensitive tools to detect multiple diseases at once, right at the point of care,” Vo-Dinh said. “This will be a great advance, especially in developing countries or remote areas with a lack of resources or trained personnel.”

Biophotonics also promises to help caregivers monitor health in real time. In his latest endeavor, Vo-Dinh, with Duke collaborators Bruce Klitzman and Thies Schroeder and an industry partner, PROFUSA, received a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop in-body nanosensors.

The goal is to develop a nanosensor that can recognize disease biomarkers and trigger a signal recognized by an optical detector. “This is a very exciting and also very challenging project,” Vo-Dinh said. His team must strengthen the signal to ensure detection through tissue, as well as keep the nanosensor biocompatible and sturdy in the long term.

As director of the Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics, Vo-Dinh is often called on to explain the Institute faculty’s work to people who don’t know much about advances in the field. But when he starts talking about how photonics can change health care, “suddenly their eyes light up,” he says. “It’s a very exciting area with profound societal impact!”