Healthier people, cleaner planet

‘This is an exciting decade’ UCLA’s Prof. Dr. Aydogan Ozcan.

Dr. Ozcan held a presentation at the recent MESA+ Meeting in the Netherlands on ‘Mobile Imaging, Sensing and Diagnostics through Computational Photonics’. In an interview with our editorial team, he shared some of his vision.

Computation is making the difference

‘The use of light for imaging, sensing and nanoscopy has been around for a while. Our spin on this at my research group is that we have made use of computational techniques, realizing they can help us to significantly simplify measurement tools, while still providing the needed information we expect from their laboratory-grade counterparts,’ says Ozcan, who is the Chancellor’s Professor at UCLA and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor. He also leads the Bio- and Nano-Photonics Laboratory at UCLA School of Engineering, is the Associate Director of the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) and co-founder of Holomic/Cellmic LLC, a Los Angeles-based start-up specialized in innovative mobile diagnostics. ‘By using novel theories and numerical algorithms, we can compensate in the digital domain for the lack of complexity of optical components. It means we can address the immediate needs and requirements of mobile health, telemedicine and global health problems. Computation is making the difference.’

Identifying viruses with a smartphone

Computational photonics offers almost unimaginable potential, Ozcan continues. ‘Imagine a smartphone with a 3D-printed interface that can be converted into a high-end and yet extremely cost-effective microscope. It would be capable of detecting molecules, identifying viruses, pathogens or genetic diseases, placing highly reliable diagnostics at the consumer’s fingertips. All of this is becoming feasible with the technologies currently emerging. Laymen will be able to self-monitor their chronic conditions or general health status, with the devices used for it facilitating maximum throughput at minimum cost. We’re talking simple, compact, field-portable early diagnosis instruments – a breakthrough for telemedicine and mobile health applications. Using a simple smartphone-like device, we will be seeing and detecting things even at our homes that  before required a well-resourced lab and professionals.’

Reducing the death toll of poor air quality

Which takes Ozcan’s vision to another realm: that of air and water quality. ‘Did you know that poor indoor air quality is responsible for 4.3 million deaths worldwide every year, and 3.7 million deaths can be traced back to outdoor air problems? Air and water are full of particles, especially at nanoscale, but until now we couldn’t see them at large throughputs; we didn’t know what they were or where they were as a function of space and time. Our measurement equipment was not accurate enough, or too expensive to deploy on a broad scale, limiting our spatial and temporal sampling and measurement frequencies. That problem is about to be solved. With computational photonics, we will have hand-held interfaces that can bridge the gap between the gold-standard lab equipment used to monitor and quantify the air in high-tech laboratories, like the one at the MESA+ Institute, and the low-end consumer tools that, to be quite honest, are currently as good as worthless from a health science point of view.’

Our cars and homes will do advanced lab work

Bringing high-quality data at nano-scale to the consumer will change healthcare first of all, says Ozcan, who already holds 33 issued patents and more than 30 pending patent applications for his inventions in telemedicine, mobile health, nanoscopy, wide-field imaging, lensless imaging, nonlinear optics, fibre optics and optical coherence tomography. ‘We will have cars and homes fitted with sensors that will do the some of the work of private labs while we get on with our daily lives. We will be able to map the pollution and microclimates in buildings and cities caused by air movement, identifying the places where pollutants accumulate and paving the way for improved building designs and urban planning toward cleaner air. Or think of airports: every aircraft landing with its nose toward the wind leaves a trail of nanoparticles that can spread several kilometres from the centre of the airport, causing health and environmental problems we have been unable to map, let alone solve – until now.’

Reaching for the sky – and into the ocean

Panning from cars and homes to buildings, airports and cities, Ozcan’s vision today even encompasses our planet’s oceans and skies. ‘My research still focuses on tele-health and medical diagnostics, the fields in which my career began. But the availability of low-cost, field-portable and autonomous imaging and sensing devices has huge potential for air and water quality all over the world. We can send up drones to measure air quality and map out improvement plans wherever we want – and the same applies to the oceans. Did you know the number one mass in our world’s oceans is not fish, but viruses? What if you could deploy thousands of small, low-cost and autonomous sampling systems out there? Just imagine the data we would have, especially about the diversity of the microbiome, and the change we could bring about using that knowledge – change in areas that until now were far beyond our control.’

‘This is an especially exciting decade’

Ozcan, who has been lauded as one of the USA’s top 10 innovators and in 2012 received the World Technology Award on Health and Medicine, is more than excited about the potential of computational photonics. But his excitement is equalled by an eagerness to collaborate with other parties, such as the MESA+ Institute. ‘MESA+ visited the CNSI facilities at UCLA in February, 2016,’ he says during a tour of the MESA+ Nanolab in the Netherlands. ‘Our missions and operations are similar. It is vital for us to connect and develop collective and individual collaboration initiatives. Nano science and technology have been around for decades, but today are growing exponentially – that is what makes this an especially exciting decade: the things we’ve been talking about are already happening. And the more we learn and transparently grow together, the more we will be able to translate nano science and technology into solutions society needs in order to address our grand challenges.’

By Stephen Teeuwen, for MESA+