News | November 21, 2023

Photonic Technologies Advance Cancer And Other Disease Detection And Treatment Response

Optica Foundation Challenge provides grants to explore new approaches to detecting disease and adverse treatment effects

  • Optica Foundation Challenge funds research to advance more rapid, efficient cancer detection and treatment response
  • Light-based biomarkers proactively detect “chemo-brain”
  • “Smart microscope” to aid in non-invasive biopsies

The Optica Foundation today released more detailed information on the healthcare research funded by the 2023 Optica Foundation Challenge. In their proposals, researchers Nirosha Murugan, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, and Fei Xia, CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), France, offered new optical sensing methods for detecting cancer, other diseases, and their impacts on the body. Both research plans seek to simplify disease detection and support earlier intervention.

“With the Optica Foundation Challenge, we strive to fund novel approaches that show exceptional promise in helping to address significant societal problems,” said Alan Willner, chair of the Challenge Selection Committee. “The program provides funding to allow researchers to take the ‘blinders off’ and investigate critical issues in novel ways. Both Professor Murugan and Dr. Xia chose innovative paths to tackle basic concerns in how we detect disease and adverse effects of its treatment. I eagerly look forward to seeing their results.”

Each supported by a USD$100,000 grant from the Optica Foundation, Murugan’s and Xia’s research endeavors to address disease diagnosis and treatment impacts in the following ways:

Detecting Early Signs of “Chemo-Brain”
Nirosha Murugan, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada
Capturing Cancer in Its Early Glow: Pioneering early detection strategies using light-based biomarkers
Research Executive Summary

As a leading cause of death worldwide, two in five people will develop cancer in their lifetime and most surviving patients will experience life-altering, negative side effects from current anti-cancer treatments. One unfortunate consequence of such anti-cancer treatment, like chemotherapy, is a syndrome of cognitive impairment that has been colloquially termed chemo-brain, which remains as the leading source of decreased quality of life amongst the increasing number of cancer survivors.

Today, chemo-brain is largely self-reported by the patient, with no adequate screening techniques available. New research from Nirosha Murugan, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, intends to shift that paradigm by offering a way to non-invasively monitor brain activity and discover any development toward an alternative cognitive state.

Specifically, Murugan aims to develop a novel light-based diagnostic imaging platform and signal classification algorithm to non-invasively detect early-stage cancer and chemotherapy-related cognitive impairments. Because all cells continuously emit low-intensity light, termed ultraweak photon emissions (UPE), by isolating and characterizing light-based biomarkers of cancer that are naturally emitted from cancerous tissues, Murugan can explore both a new approach to cancer detection and a method for predicting cognitive symptoms associated with chemo-brain.

“If we can see changes in brain activity and those associated with mal-adaptive behaviors, it can lead to mitigation through early intervention,” indicated Murugan. “Therapy and medication may be employed or changed to help slow the progression of cognitive impairment, and early detection is always better than treating it once it gets worse.”

The first step in this research is to devise a photon detector system to evaluate light-based biomarkers. From there, Murugan expects to begin testing the correlations with brain activity to identify the markers of chemo-brain.

“It’s not just chemistry or biology as drivers; physics plays an important role in how our bodies work,” explained Murugan. “By looking at cancer from a three-pronged approach, we can more rapidly detect it and early changes in treatment response.”

Smart Microscope for Non-Invasive Biopsy
Fei Xia, CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), France
Low-Cost Stain-free Computational Spectral Fluorescence Imager for Diagnosis of Diseased Tissues
Research Executive Summary

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, there were 19.4 million new cancer cases diagnosed around the globe in 2020, and that number is expected to grow to 30.2 million by 2040. That rapid rise in disease directly corresponds to an increase in diagnostic biopsies, with that USD$28 billion global market expected to climb at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.04% through 2030.

While a standard of disease diagnosis, biopsies can be invasive, high cost, and limited in access, particularly in resource-restricted areas, leaving many patients without an option for effective and timely diagnosis. Fortunately, optical biopsy brings much promise for these scenarios.

Unlike conventional biopsy techniques that require tissue extraction, optical biopsy allows for real-time, non-invasive visualization of tissue morphology and pathology. However, current optical biopsy techniques require contrast agents, expensive equipment, and skilled personnel, making them unattractive alternatives—until now.

New research from Fei Xia, CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), France, points to fluorescence microscopy as partner to optical biopsy that will help solve for existing issues. Building out a Computational Spectral Fluorescence Imager, Xia plans to combine the benefits of label-free fluorescence microscopy and optical biopsy, to address the pitfalls in current technology.

“My research proposal is not conventional; I am incorporating more computational design into microscope development,” shared Xia. “For biopsies, diagnostic teams use a general-purpose microscope. This universal design is not enough; we need to tailor it for the problem. The rise of machine learning and strong-power computational techniques creates new opportunities for a ‘smart microscope’ to better diagnose disease.”

In practice, this means teaching the microscope, through algorithms, what it’s reviewing and to highlight any potential disease states. Xia sees a lot of promise in this technology, and in a few months’ time hopes to have a principal demonstration and optimization of the concept. Over the course of the next year and a half, will work on improving it towards application in a clinical, diagnostic setting.

“We’re at the very initial start of this field of imaging—the intersection of optics, biotechnology, and information theory—and it’s very exciting. My goal is that the Computational Spectral Fluorescence Imager will provide a practical, cost-effective solution to enhance disease diagnostic quality and to catalyze advances in global health,” she summed up.

Both disease-related research initiatives were made possible by grants awarded through the Optica Foundation Challenge. This challenge was designed to engage early-career professionals in out-of-the-box thinking and provide seed money to investigate hypotheses in the areas of environment, health and information. Each of the recipients received USD$100,000 to explore their ideas and take steps toward addressing critical global issues. Recipients have begun work on these projects and expect to report initial results later in 2024. For more information, visit

Optica Foundation
Established in 2002, the Optica Foundation carries out charitable activities in support of the society’s student and early career members. We cultivate the next generation of leaders and innovators as they navigate advanced degree programs and become active members of research, engineering and business communities worldwide. The foundation also works to secure the endowments for Optica’s awards and honors programs. The foundation is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. For more information, visit

About Optica
Optica (formerly OSA), Advancing Optics and Photonics Worldwide, is the society dedicated to promoting the generation, application, archiving and dissemination of knowledge in the field. Founded in 1916, it is the leading organization for scientists, engineers, business professionals, students and others interested in the science of light. Optica’s renowned publications, meetings, online resources and in-person activities fuel discoveries, shape real-life applications and accelerate scientific, technical and educational achievement. For more information, visit

Source: Optica