Working on a grant of £1.2 million donated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – a British Research Council that provides government funding to research projects related to the physical sciences – Professor Jonathan Shephard and his team are working on a new laser-based system for the treatment of cancer.
The new system will be focused around ultrafast picosecond lasers that deliver energy in a series of pulses lasting no more than one-trillionth of a second long, in hopes of enabling surgeons to distinguish cancer cells in much higher resolution, and remove them without causing damage to surrounding tissue.
Having demonstrated that the new system is effective in treating colorectal cancers – at least under laboratory conditions – Shephard and his team are now working together with clinicians at the University of Leeds and the Leeds Teaching Hospital NHS Trust to devise a similar technique for the treatment of brain, head, and neck cancers.
According to Shephard, the system “restricts damage to the surrounding, healthy cells – within the width of a human hair”. In addition, thanks to the extremely short duration of the laser pulses, there simply isn’t enough time to case any significant heat damage to non-target cells.
“The most important principle of any cancer surgery is to ensure that all cancer cells are moved; failure to do so will result in the cancer coming back,” Shephard said, emphasising the need for advanced technology to tackle cancer head-on.
Considering the fact that even microscopic loss of healthy tissue and damage to nearby vital structures can lead to life-threatening consequences and a potentially large impact on the quality of life, utmost precision is of crucial importance.
Spurred on by early success, Shephard’s team plans to continue research on laser technology, and have set for itself a timeline of three year to develop a flexible optical fibre-based system that can target and remove malignant cells two orders of magnitude smaller than currently available technology.