Quo Vadis Biophotonics?

Interview with Jürgen Popp

  • Jürgen Popp studied chemistry at the universities of Erlangen and Würzburg. After his PhD in Chemistry he joined Yale University for postdoctoral work. He subsequently returned to Würzburg University where he finished his habilitation in 2002. Since 2002 he holds a chair for Physical Chemistry at the Friedrich-Schiller University Jena. Since 2006 he is also the scientific director of the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology, Jena. His research interests are concerned with bio- and material-photonics. In particular, his expertise in the field of Raman spectroscopy and in the development of innovative Raman techniques should be emphasized. The scientific results of Jürgen Popp were published in more than 250 scientific articles in premier peer-reviewed journals. Jürgen Popp coordinates the European Network of Excellence “Photonics4Life” and is Editor-in-Chief of “Journal of Biophotonics”Jürgen Popp studied chemistry at the universities of Erlangen and Würzburg. After his PhD in Chemistry he joined Yale University for postdoctoral work. He subsequently returned to Würzburg University where he finished his habilitation in 2002. Since 2002 he holds a chair for Physical Chemistry at the Friedrich-Schiller University Jena. Since 2006 he is also the scientific director of the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology, Jena. His research interests are concerned with bio- and material-photonics. In particular, his expertise in the field of Raman spectroscopy and in the development of innovative Raman techniques should be emphasized. The scientific results of Jürgen Popp were published in more than 250 scientific articles in premier peer-reviewed journals. Jürgen Popp coordinates the European Network of Excellence “Photonics4Life” and is Editor-in-Chief of “Journal of Biophotonics”

Within the last decades, spectroscopic and microscopic methods have changed many fields of biomedical analysis and diagnosis dramatically. Governmental funding supported this development within the biophotonics research programs. Jürgen Popp, one of the major drivers of these programs in Germany and Europe, spoke with Imaging & Microscopy about what happened within these programs and how such methods can help to save lives in the near future.

Today, a large number of diseases still lack a quick and reliable diagnosis preventing the effective treatment of the patient and thereby causing life-threatening conditions. Scientists, health care professionals and device engineers explore innovative biophotonic diagnostics and therapeutics, which can address these unmet medical needs and improve the survival rate of the patients.

Imaging & Microscopy: 15 years ago, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) started a program on Biophotonics. 170 million € were invested. What happened ever since?

Jürgen Popp: Thanks to the funding of the BMBF research initiative “Biophotonics” (“Forschungsschwerpunkt Biophotonik”), the investigation and development of new optical technologies and devices for biomedical applications have gained strong momentum in the last decade. Over 150 companies, research institutions and universities combine their work forces in the biophotonics initiative, which provides the basis for close collaboration of physicians, natural scientist and technologist.

Only with that interdisciplinarity, we are able to better understand the causes and symptoms of widespread diseases such as cancer and find more efficient therapies. For example, we developed a compact microscope for multi-modal imaging of tissue samples, allowing the fast, non-destructive and label-free discrimination of healthy and cancerous tissue.

First clinical trials at the Jena University Hospital showed that this technology holds potential in the classification of tissue during a surgery. Photonic applications that have been already tightly anchored in medical practice, are for example fluorescence endoscopy, photodynamic therapy and optical coherence tomography.

This broad palette of applications and devices also reflects in economic growth rates and new employment.

This economic leverage of the “Biophotonics” initiative particularly effects Germany, holding one of the largest shares in the medical and life-science segment of the global photonics market.

Was there an impact on the international community as well?

J. Popp: Yes. With the establishment of the European Technology Platform (ETP) „Photonics21” in 2005, we are part of the European Photonics Community. Just like in the BMBF research initiative “Biohotonics” we represent with “Photonics21” both industry and research organizations in the public and at the European Commission. Our contributions to “Photonics21” help to find research priorities along unmet medical needs and to initiate innovations that will benefit not only Europe’s leading position in biomedical diagnostics and therapy but also help to improve the health status of every citizen.

Which photonic technologies would you distinguish to show particular potential for rapid changes in medical diagnostics and therapies?

J. Popp: I think it is not one particular technology, but rather the successful interplay and connection of different innovative diagnostic technologies and methods, for instance, combined in a point-of-care analytical device. In this way, a large cohort of patients can be screened for a specific disease with a rapid test.
Simultaneously, photonic imaging systems help to find the cause and the right therapy, if the rapid test was positive. In contrast to conventional analysis of biological samples in a laboratory that usually takes up to several days, such a device can give a result within a few hours or even minutes – time that can be essential for a successful treatment.

A second example that illustrates the interplay of techniques is a recent multi-modal bio-imaging approach. It combines different imaging techniques such as Raman, two-photon fluorescence microscopy and second harmonic generation with fiber optical lasers to monitor the surgery of a brain tumor in real-time in the operation room even by un-instructed staff. This saves a lot of time during surgery and improves the preservation of healthy brain tissue.

Do you have a practical example what this could mean in saving time for a treatment?

J. Popp: Yes, particularly in case of sepsis it is crucial for the survival of the patient to precisely identify the pathogens and their resistance to antibiotics within the shortest possible time. The earlier and targeted the patient receives the right antibiotic treatment, the better are her or his chances for surviving the infectious disease.

So far the gold standard are pathogen analyses from microbiological blood cultivation, which take up to 2 days. In Jena, the research campus “Infectognostics” and the Center for Sepsis Control and Care (CSCC) provide an expert-network, for investigation and development of faster diagnostics and innovative treatment of sepsis. In a recent project researches from the Leibniz-Institute of Photonic Technology (IPHT), the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, the Jena University Hospital and industrial partners investigated Raman vibrational-spectroscopy with subsequent database allocation, allowing the reliable pathogen identification within a couple of minutes. The industrial project partner rap.ID has developed a marketable diagnostic device – the Bioparticle Explorer. The analysis software and databases as well as the SOPs are constantly improved by the Jena-based start-up company, Biophotonics Diagnostics and then commercialized by rap.ID.

During the session about “medical needs” at the upcoming micro photonics 2016 conference in Berlin, researchers will present more cases in which fast biophotonic diagnostics could potentially save vitally important time for therapy.

When we look into the future, how will the funding environment for biophotonics / photonic healthcare research evolve? What is the strategy behind?

J. Popp: The current funding programs in Germany and the European funding program Horizon2020 pursue the strategy to close the gap between applied research and market-ready products. With long-term research programs and a stronger involvement of companies in the networks, the funding bodies aim to bridge this so called valley-of-death that so far often prevents the translation of research results into innovative products.

I already mentioned the unique potential of the research campus “Infectognostics”. This is a very good example, how all stakeholders can be involved, including the biomedical end-users and the health assurances, to improve this process of translation. According to the IPHT slogan “from ideas to instruments” we conduct research along the whole value chain and in this way we benefit from this long-term funding strategy. By implementation into products, future biophotonic healthcare technologies will essentially contribute to the exploitation of new markets and  jobs in the high-tech sector.

How are the obstacles along the way to a biophotonic diagnostic device for example being applied in a hospital tackled?

J. Popp: The strategic collaboration and close networking of scientist, clinicians and companies from the beginning is essential to transfer research results into a working lab model. The micro photonics conference, for example, provides a valuable platform to build up contacts between research and industry as well as developers and users. But going the next step to the development of a prototype is much more difficult, because funding programs hardly give money for this development step.

Luckily the IPHT has good connections to industrial collaboration partners, who are interested in new technologies. Another hurdle on the way to a broad application of a new device is its certification, which declares that the product harmonizes with the applying legislations of the European Union. Here we benefit from the advantages of being a member of the Leibniz community. The Leibniz research collaborative „Gesundheitstechnologien” (healthcare technologies) takes care e.g. of CE-certification, license approval and accounting – things that scientists usually don’t focus on.

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