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Biointegrated photonics: can lasers be edible?

They can, according to young Slovenian researcher Matjaž Humar. Not only that, these “edible lasers” could save lives.

Humar heads a lab for biointegrated photonics at the Josef Stefan Institute in Ljubljana. The young scientist became more widely known within the scientific community a few years ago. Together with Seok-Hyun Yun of the Harvard Medical School Humar succeeded in implanting and operating a laser inside a single living human cell for the first time. This is another step in Humar’s endeavors to integrate photonic devices into biological systems. The integration of lasers and optical waveguides in living organisms allow not only better understanding of biological processes but also more accurate diagnostics and targeted medical treatments. These organic devices are “biocompatible” or in cases even alive. They are also completely biodegradable and thus harmless for the organism. The group’s 3D laser created from cholesteric liquid crystals has already been patented in the EU and all other major countries. Other projects coming from Humar’s lab are diagnostic tattoos with micro lasers instead of ink. The tattoos would be used to measure blood sugar levels of diabetes patients.

The field of biointegrated photonics is relatively new yet extremely promising. In 2019 Humar’s lab received a 1.5 million euro grant from the prestigious European Research Council. In Spring 2020 Humar received the Young Investigator Grant from the Human Frontiers Science Program. In cooperation with M.Choi from Seoul National University, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Humar will try to demonstrate a living optically-communicating neural network. Humar’s research has been published in numerous prestigious scientific journals including Nature and Science. His experiments were also featured in more popular media like the Scientific American magazine, Fox News and even in the Netflix series White Rabbit Project, created by the producers of legendary MythBusters TV show.

Illustration: Josef Stefan Institute

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