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University of Missouri

Shedding Laser Light on the Problem

A new photoacoustic device adds much-needed data to the art of treating burns.

John Viator operates a laser light

By sending laser light into burns, physicians can extract information about the extent of the wound and decide how best to proceed. Photo by Rob Hill.

Burn surgeons are a rare breed of physician. Only a handful graduate each year, and they must practice their profession with as much art as science, says John Viator, associate professor of biological engineering. For instance, based on equal parts training and experience, they look at the surface of patients’ burns, estimate the extent of the damage and make the difficult diagnosis of whether the wounds will heal or need skin grafts. With so little to go on, Viator says, “Many burn surgeons are wrong at least half the time.”

Viator is developing a new technology that uses light and sound to give clinicians far more objective information about burn injuries than ever before. His photoacoustic device emits timed nanosecond-length pulses of laser light into burn injuries. Only certain colors of tissue absorb the light: Burned hemoglobin in the wound is brown, and normal hemoglobin in the underlying healthy tissue is red. As each color of tissue absorbs the light, it heats up, expands slightly and sends out unique ultrasonic waves the device picks up. By coordinating pulses with the returning waves, Viator can build a computer model of precisely where the burn begins and ends. With that information, physicians can make key treatment decisions.

The device could save lots of time and money if it eventually becomes standard equipment for emergency rooms, Viator says. ER physicians could use the objective data to decide whether to refer patients on to more specialized units.

This project receives funding from the Coulter Translational Research Program.

Read about other Coulter grant recipients:
Early Detection of Lung Cancer — Li-Qun Gu and Michael Wang
Gold Nanorods Diagnose Colon Cancer — Raghuraman Kannan and Gerald Arthur
Nano Knees — Sheila Grant and Richard White
Focusing on Autism Spectrum Disorder — Gang Yao and Judith Miles