The Tsens' USP laser in the laboratory setting.  (Source: Kong-Thon Tsen)
New ultra-fast laser promises to provide revolutionary elimination of pathogens

Viruses have taken an innumberable toll on humans and many other living species throughout the Earth's history.  The only thing that protects these tiny killers is a thin shield of protein, which encloses their genetic material, either RNA or DNA.

Researchers Kong-Thon Tsen, a physics professor at Arizona State University, and his son Shaw-Wei Tsen, a pathology student at John Hopkins, have found a way to destroy this protective sheath without harming normal cells.

The secret is a device known as an Ultrashort-Pulse (USP) Laser.  A harmless laser pulse, 1/40th of the level destructive to human cells, was aimed a Tobacco Mosaic Virus.  The laser destroyed the virus, leaving behind only a mucus-like mess of molecules.

The laser releases energy in pulses in the femtosecond range; a femtosecond being a millionth of a nanosecond--10-15 seconds.

The super-fast pulses are tuned to the resonant frequency of the virus protein and causes it to vibrate, with each pulse adding to the vibration.  Eventually the vibration overcomes the bonding energy of the protein's bonds and the protein structure disintegrates, shattering into harmless component atoms and molecules.

The Tsens are next looking to aim the laser's sights at HIV and Hepatitis viruses, to see if a similar destructive effect at low power can be achieved, as they anticipate.

"This technique will be very useful to disinfect all the viruses, known or unknown," Tsen said. "This will make blood transfusion very safe."  By using the laser technique, blood banks will likely be able to determine hard to detect viruses such as HIV.  HIV and other viruses undergo periods of dormancy, during which they are virtually undetectable by traditional testing.

Treatment in which the lasers are aimed at human tissues to kill viruses residing in them is still a ways away, however with continued advanced, this may one day be possible.

While not suggested by the Tsens, an additional possible application is to use the USP laser to effectively filter the viruses out of the blood of patients with disorders such as viral pneumonia or late stage HIV.  By hooking a patient up to a circulatory apparatus, which exposes their blood stream to a USP, a progressive cleaning program could be executed, eventually culminating in clearing the patient's bloodstream of a particular pathogen.  While this would take some time, the approach could dramatically clear out viral infections, which frequently target areas with a high amount of blood flow, such as the lungs.

USPs, according to an FDA official may have hundreds of medical uses.  Among these are destroying viruses, improving common laser eye treatments, and cell-by-cell tumor ablation.

The FDA signed a deal this year with tech-venture company Raydiance to develop and research medical uses for USPs.   USPs have been around for over 25 years, but only recently have been shrunk to useful sizes.

"The extreme brevity of these pulses is creating a physical effect that traditional lasers and other types of non-laser approaches can't do," the president of Raydiance, Scott Davison said. "What we see is a new wave of exploration and discovery in applying USP in a whole bunch of industries and applications."

The field of high-tech laser devices has been experiencing dramatic breakthroughs in recent years.  Aside from medicine, new powerful lasers are promising to revolutionize the future of mankind in many other ways.  In September it was reported by DailyTech that a new highly powerful low-cost laser is promising to revolutionize spaceflight by acting as either an engine or as a flight positioning device. 

Previously this year it was also reported by DailyTech that the U.S. armed forces are making advances in weaponry grade lasers, which may be deployed in the battlefields of the near future.

"If you look at the last five years, if you look at what major innovations have occurred in computing technology, every single one of them came from AMD. Not a single innovation came from Intel." -- AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in 2007

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