• Physics 15, 141
Today, a team of physicists and doctors will be honored for developing a bladeless eye surgery technique known as LASIK, a progress backed in part by a lab accident involving the eye and laser.
Five years after receiving the Nobel Prize for developing techniques for generating high-intensity laser pulses (see Focus: Nobel Prize – lasers as tools)Gérard Moreau of the Ecole Polytechnique in France and Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada are back in the spotlight. Today they are among a team of five who have received a Golden Goose award for their method of corrective eye surgery that uses a laser instead of a blade.
The Golden Goose Awards—originally envisioned by American actor Jim Cooper as a counterpoint to criticism that funding basic research is a wasteful way to spend taxpayer money—are given each year to researchers whose seemingly nebulous idea has led to unexpected advances that dramatically impacted society. Previous winners of the awards, awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), are David Sachar, whose experiments with frog skin have led to a cure for cholera, and Lotfi Zadeh, who shows his “fuzzy” logic in controlling everything from vacuum cleaners to anti-lock brakes.
“I have been honored to see the Golden Goose award grow over the past decade,” Cooper said in a statement. “Remarkable scientific discoveries – and the people behind them – are as important as ever.” Sudeep Parik, CEO of AAAS, added: “The Golden Goose Award reminds us that potential discoveries can be hidden in every corner.”
Hidden angle corrective eye surgery was a lab accident. Thirty years ago, while conducting experiments at the University of Michigan, one of Morrow’s graduate students accidentally hit his eye with a femtosecond laser beam. He was taken to the hospital where the ophthalmologist on duty – Ron Kurtz – noted that the damage was “perfect”. The beam burned a delicate circular silhouette into the student’s retina, a feat that was not possible with other lasers used in clinics at the time. “We knew right away we had something,” Moreau recounted. Interview With a French radio station.
“It was an accident but it was also a very important step,” says Tibor Juhas, who was working in Moreau’s lab at the time. The chance encounter brought together physicists and doctors who would eventually help make laser-based eye surgery a safe and reliable procedure. Juhasz has studied ophthalmic applications of femtosecond lasers and is currently CEO of ViaLase, while Kurtz – the hospital’s ophthalmologist – has built a career in developing lasers for eye surgery and is now CEO of RxSight. Besides Detao Du at Rayz Technologies, they share the Golden Goose with Morrow and Strickland.
It is noteworthy how eye surgery was before the serendipity lab accident. For those undergoing myopia correction, for example, the surgeon first opens a flap in the cornea, then reshapes the underlying cornea, and finally replaces the flap. The cutting was usually done with a vibrating razor, but initial research at the time was beginning to explore with a picosecond laser. However, Juhasz notes that these two lasers — and the blade — caused significant collateral damage to surrounding eye tissue.
Laser surgery researchers have solved the problem of damage by switching to femtosecond laser pulses, which have a much shorter duration and therefore produce a more precise cut. The improvement, Juhas says, was like “the practical disappearance of collateral damage in adjacent tissues.”
Minimizing the damage also means that despite the technology’s novelty and exorbitant price, people have been quick to opt for laser-assisted eye surgery, or bladeless LASIK as it is now known. “Everyone loved the idea of a high-resolution laser,” Juhas says. He notes that his son has since had the operation and now has “perfect” eyesight.
Strickland was surprised to learn that she was one of the laureates, having helped develop the femtosecond laser but not in the subsequent leap from physics to the world of medicine. However, she sees benefits for prizes like Golden Goose because they highlight the unexpected payoff from investing in “esoteric research.” It gave an example of Albert Einstein’s early theoretical work that paved the way for the invention of the laser. “I don’t think when Einstein came up with those equations he was thinking ‘Yeah, someday they’re going to make a laser out of it.'” “
Today he also received Golden Goose awards from Manu Prakash of Stanford University and Jim Cybulski of Foldscope Instruments for their paper microscope, which costs less than $1 to manufacture; and Lourdes Cruz of the University of the Philippines and J. Michael McIntosh and Baldomero Marquez Olivera of the University of Utah, who discovered a non-opioid treatment for pain while studying snail venom. Craig Clark posthumously celebrated his work on that study.
Kathryn Wright is deputy magazine editor Physics magazine.