While the other scientific themes addressed by The Rosalind Franklin Institute tackle currently intractable problems or bottlenecks in established life science fields, the ‘Imaging with sound and light’ theme stands out for having a vast number of science questions and opportunities to innovate simply due to its infancy.

Separately, optics and acoustics are integral to the life sciences, from conventional ultrasound imaging to laser flow cytometry. But together, applications of light and sound are at a very early stage of development, with only photoacoustic imaging based on laser-generated ultrasound finding limited use in the clinic today.

Exploring light-sound interactions

Part of why the field remains nascent is a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of the interaction between light, sound and tissue, and how it can be used to both image optical contrast (i.e. see the difference between different states of tissue, like oxygenated/deoxygenated blood or cancerous/healthy tissue) and induce therapeutic effect.

Imaging with light and sound offers exciting opportunities in a host of areas, including increasing our understanding of biological processes, accelerating drug discovery and improving the clinical assessment of cancer and other major diseases.

Hence, the ‘Imaging with Light and Sound’ theme will explore the essential nature of light–sound interaction in the context of biological tissue, using insights gathered to develop new hardware, software, contrast agents and signal processing that enhance optical imaging capability through acoustic emissions induced by rapidly heated light-absorbing tissue (photoacoustic response) and the modulation of light when it passes through a sound wave (acousto-optic response).

Instead of large and expensive equipment, these new technologies will mostly be unique applications of standard apparatus that significantly improve speed, resolution, imaging depth and tissue specificity. For example, the team aims to deliver an ultra-high speed imaging capability to optically explore the dynamical response of biological materials and imaging contrast agents to acoustic forcing. The Harwell Hub’s specialised laser sources, photodetectors and state-of-the-art ultrasound platforms will be complemented by equipment well-suited to clinical translation within the Spoke universities and industry collaborators.

And ample opportunity exists for eventual translation into a range of new diagnostic or therapeutic methods in the clinic. For example, developing acousto-optic imaging of living tissue could allow it to be used as a tool for real-time guidance of high intensity focused ultrasound cancer therapy. Or new innovations in photoacoustic imaging could extend its utility to tissue characterisation for biopsies, would healing, therapy monitoring and many more.

The breadth of potential applications of light and sound is matched by the diversity of expertise required to realise its potential. The theme will draw together experts from laser physics, physical optics, acoustics, biomedical ultrasonics, high-speed imaging, nanoparticle technology, chemistry and biology. And given activity at the intersection of light and sound is in its early stage of development, the theme will lean heavily on key stakeholders and the other themes to define the most important and urgent life science problems and develop solutions in a way that impacts the scientific, industrial and medical communities best.