By David Levitz
Some very exciting news came out of SPIE last week: There is going to be a new conference open for papers on Optics in Low-Resource Settings at next year’s Photonics West meeting in San Francisco. This is a huge development. For several years now, Photonics West has been the leading biomedical optics conference in the world. However, the bulk of the research presented at Photonics West came primarily from leading labs in OECD countries, focusing on pushing the boundaries of science – improving the spatial resolution of optical coherence tomography, developing multi-modal endoscopes for imaging a host of internal tissues, spectroscopy, optogenetics, photodynamic and low-light therapies. Until very recently, R&D in biomedical optics consisted almost exclusively of innovations of such high-end systems.
But then something happened. The revolution in digital electronics has significantly reduced both the price and size of sensors, light sources, and computing units. With the smartphone, mobile imaging systems have been placed in the hands of billions of people. Indeed, the cameras in smartphones have better specs than many of the cameras in high-end medical imaging systems. Prototyping has become faster and easier. Not only can mechanical structures be printed inexpensively in 3D, but now, so can lenses and other optical elements. Innovations in nanotechnology and microfluidics enable rapid optical analysis of liquid specimen collected from any or all bodily fluids.
With these trends, many believe that growth in health care technologies in the future will be based on innovative low-cost solutions that bring health care to the masses, which currently lack access to it. This is no small number - approximately 6 billion people, or 85 % of the world’s population, lives outside OECD nations, where resources and facilities available to deliver medical care are limited. The new leaner, smarter optical technologies are thus uniquely positioned to enable emerging markets to leapfrog OECD countries improve the healthcare of their people.
When I was at the NCI-NIBIB’s Point-of-Care Cancer Diagnostics for Low-Resource Settings conference in January, in session after session, the advantages of optical technologies over other methods was clearly obvious. Price, size, scalability: all these factors need to be precisely aligned in order to make an impact. In this rather intimate conference, I was privileged to meet 2 world-renown experts developing optical technologies for use in the field, Aydogan Ozcan and David Erickson. Noticing the excitement at the NIH conference, the 3 of us realized the need for a forum on solutions for global health challenges within the biomedical optics community. There is no better forum than the one at SPIE’s Photonics West, the largest annual gathering of scientists and engineers and clinicians, from both academia and industry. They get together each February in San Francisco to present cutting-edge research. From the moment we approached the organizers of Photonics West, we encountered nothing but enthusiastic support. Experts whose support we did not seek suddenly came forward with suggestions. And now, it’s official – the conference was approved by SPIE, and the Call for Papers has been published.
For us at MobileOCT, this moment is quite encouraging. We helped build a forum where people researching optical solutions for global problems can come and present their work, interact, provide critical feedback, and discuss all those challenges unique to low-resource settings. It is an exciting opportunity to plant the seeds for future innovations that address the problems of the billions of people at the base of the pyramid.
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