SPIE-Hillenkamp Fellowships Drive Translational Photonics Technologies

The 2019 SPIE-Hillenkamp Fellows, Jie Hui and Andreas Wartak, are using optics and photonics to identify safe, inexpensive, and effective methods for treating two critical health challenges

ONE PILL TO RULE THEM ALL: The 'pill on the string' that enables in vivo image acquisition of the esophageal wall.

Jie Hui is using blue laser light to find a simple, safe, and effective treatment platform for MRSA infections that are resistant to multiple antibiotics; Andreas Wartak is using Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) to create a less invasive, less expensive diagnostic tool for eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), an inflammatory, allergy-related condition of the esophagus whose impact is growing. 

Thanks to SPIE-Hillenkamp Fellowships, both Hui and Wartak are immersed in exciting, hands-on workspaces – Hui as part of Ji-Xin Cheng’s group at Boston University, Wartak in Guillermo J. Tearney’s lab at the Wellman Center for Photomedicine – vital contributors to the collaborative efforts between scientists, physicians, and engineers to translate basic research into clinical applications.

First awarded in 2018, the SPIE-Franz Hillenkamp Postdoctoral Fellowships in Problem-Driven Biomedical Optics and Analytics include $75,000 for Fellows’ salaries and research project costs. The Fellowship supports interdisciplinary, problem-driven research and opportunities for translating new technologies into clinical practice for improving human health.

Honoring the career of medical laser pioneer Franz Hillenkamp, the SPIE-Hillenkamp Fellowship is a partnership with three founding international biomedical laboratories – the Wellman Center for Photomedicine, the Manstein Lab in the Cutaneous Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Medical Laser Center Lübeck, this year joined by Boston University Photonics Center as a hosting lab – and the Hillenkamp family.

For this year’s researchers, the Fellowship has a level of freedom and support that goes beyond standard grants. Hui is building on an earlier discovery with his group, that staphyloxanthin, a yellow carotenoid in MRSA’s membrane that is critical to both the microbe’s virulence and its antibiotic resistance, is subject to photolysis. By stripping off the pigment with blue laser, Hui can get to the heart of MRSA’s formidable wall of defense. Thus far, Hui has deciphered the detailed membrane disruption mechanisms, and has re-sensitized MRSA to several major classes of conventional antibiotics. Now, he’s honing the light delivery system, as well as working on the clinical translation of the technology by targeting specific infections – skin, diabetic ulceration, urinary tract infection – caused by MRSA. “Receiving the Fellowship this year has given me more time and more freedom to pursue the ideas I’m interested in, to really pursue the clinical translation of this technology,” says Hui, who’s fascinated by the interplay between microbiology and light. “It’s a wonderful recognition for the work our group is doing and helps attract attention from industry as we make this technology of phototherapy devices ready for patients’ use.”

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SHADES OF BLUE: Hui’s pulsed blue laser in action, including a handheld device, treating MRSA on a demonstrating culture plate.

That lab-impacting recognition is important to Wartak, too. He is working to replace the invasive, expensive, and time-consuming endoscopy-biopsy process – “the gold standard right now, when it comes to EoE” – by using tethered-capsule endomicroscopy (TCE) to speed things up and enable a better-tolerated and less expensive diagnostic tool. His lab’s killer app? A pill on a string that, once swallowed, uses OCT to image the esophageal wall. “In this project we are trying to improve the imaging resolution and contrast of our capsules in comparison to the previous version, in order to visualize those cells and tissue structures that are abnormal in EOE, in vivo.”

“Bringing this fellowship in has helped me a lot to focus on my EoE project this year,” he says. “That should allow us to get through the translational process more quickly – or at least get on track faster. But this fellowship is also a prestigious, high-profile acknowledgement for our translational lab and the work we’ve been doing. In the OCT community everybody knows our group, but gaining more attention outside of our field is definitely very meaningful as well.”