'Lightsaber'-like laser scalpels developed for surgery

Tiny, ultra-precise lasers developed by Texas scientists and compared to the 'lightsabers' wielded by Star Wars Jedi could soon be used in microsurgery for patients requiring delicate medical procedures.

Texas scientists hope medical device will allow for more control in complex operations

An image taken with a two-photon fluorescence microscope from a small medical laser developed by Texas researchers shows cells in a 70-micrometer-thick piece of vocal cord from a pig. (University of Texas at Austin)

Tiny, ultra-precise lasers developed by Texas scientists and compared to the "lightsabers" wielded by Star Wars Jedi could soon be used in microsurgery for patients requiring delicate medical procedures.

A research team from the University of Texas at Austin will present the small, endoscopic device at next month's Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics in California, with the hope it could someday replace traditional scalpels as a next-generation clinical tool of choice.

The highly flexible device — thinner than a pencil and outfitted with a special microscope — can deliver short but very powerful laser pulses that can penetrate up to one millimeter into living tissue.

An illustration shows the packaged endoscope overlaid with the laser optical system developed by researchers with the University of Texas at Austin. The entire probe would be only 23 millimeters long. (University of Texas at Austin)

Common surgical lasers or regular scalpels aren't precise enough to always selectively cut out only unhealthy tissue.

But the advantage of the new mini laser technology, the scientists say, is that it emits bursts lasting only 200 quadrillionths of a second, meaning surrounding healthy tissues are less prone to damage. Surgeons can target individual cells and would theoretically have more control during complicated procedures such as brain surgery, treatment for scarred vocal cords or removal of small tumours in the spinal cord.

Adela Ben-Yakar, the project's principal investigator, said the probe is only 23 millimeters long and has been tested and fits into the same types of endoscopes used for colonoscopies.

"The probe has proven that it's functional and feasible and can be [manufactured] commercially," Ben-Yakar said.

At least five years of clinical trials will need to be completed before the first mass-marketed laser scalpel based on the team's research can get approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for human application.

The prototype device has successfully treated pig vocal cords and the tendons of rat tails.