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The Inventivity Pod
Inventive Ways to Use Lasers
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Lasers aren’t just for sci-fi movies, it turns out they can be used for the treatment of tumors and ultra-fast communications networks. Michael Bass, a professor at the University of Central Florida, is the holder of 34 patents and a 2019 inductee in the Florida Inventors’ Hall of Fame. Bass invented ways to use lasers to treat bleeding in the gastrointestinal system, detect nanoparticles associated with tumors, and amplify light in fiberoptic cables. 

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Lasers. No scifi movie can do without them, but it turns out they’re good for lots of other things, including the treatment of tumors and advanced communications networks. Welcome to Radio Cade . I’m your host Richard Miles recording at the University of South Florida in partnership with our Florida Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as USF today. My guest is Michael Bass, professor Ameritas at the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He is also the holder of 34 U.S. patents as well as a 2019 inductee into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame. Welcome to show Michael and congratulations.

Michael Bass:

Oh, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Richard Miles:

So we usually start out the show explaining the inventors technology, but you’ve got 34 patents. So I’m sort of at a loss where to begin here, but why don’t we start with a very basic definition of lasers and the types of things they can be use for, and then we’ll move from there and to specific applications that are contained in some of your patents.

Michael Bass:

Sure. First, a laser is a device that produces a lot of light. It also produces it with very special properties so that you can focus it very carefully and you can select from a variety of lasers to be able to look at different kinds of effects, some effects depend on frequency or wavelength of the laser. Some activities you want to do require shorter pulses. We now have lasers that run continuously and yet other lasers that make pulses as short as 10 to the minus 15 seconds.

Richard Miles:

Wow. Okay. So there’s a lot of power there and a lot of utility and you have managed to figure out a number of different ways in which is sort of harness the power of lasers to do different things that I think people wouldn’t ordinarily think of. And I think one of the cool things about talking about inventions is not just the inventions themselves, but how did the inventor think of them? So let’s start out with one that I’ve heard you talk about, and that is using lasers to treat bleeding in the gastrointestinal system. How did you come up with that idea? What led you to that particular use?

Michael Bass:

All inventions begin with a question in this case, the question was raised to me by two people who are gastroenterologists at the university of Southern California Medical School. They had been using fiber optic endoscopes and could see pathologies bleeding and ulcers in the gastrointestinal system. And the comment both made was it’s very frustrating. We can’t do anything about it.

Richard Miles:

They can see it, but they couldn’t do anything.

Michael Bass:

They could see it and they couldn’t do anything. And they were very frustrated. So the question was, what could they do to treat these problems inside the gastrointestinal system? So my suggestion was, as it turned out, invention was to use a separate fiber optic to transmit laser light into the GI system with endoscopic control so that you could aim it at the bleeding site, turn on the laser and cauterize the bleeding lasers had been used to cauterize bleeding prior to this, but not with the fiber optic and internally into the body. When this patent was written, the patent attorney included the expression, introduced into the patient through openings, natural or manmade. Now that was brilliant because the last three words or manmade made our patent a predecessor or a precursor to all of laparoscopic surgery.

Richard Miles:

Wow, okay. I hope you’d kept that patent attorney on the payroll.

Michael Bass:

I should hope so.

Richard Miles:

Just out of curiosity, you said this started with a question from these two doctors, how did they come to you or you to them? Was this a professional meeting or was this just by luck?

Michael Bass:

Actually, they came to see me. I had not yet been at USC for more than two months. It was about the last part of the second month I was there. I had no equipment. I had no lab. I just got there and they were at the USC medical school and there must have been an announcement of the new faculty or the new people. And they came by, they literally knocked on my door and came in and sat down and we started to talk and their frustration was very clear. They didn’t know what to do once they saw these bleeding sites, once the idea was put out and we tested it and tried it out and we actually got permission to try it with human subjects. And it was phenomenal that we could stop the bleeding, the patients would get healthy again. And it was just great. It was a very exciting time.

Richard Miles:

Is this now widely used procedure? Is fairly common or is it still unusual?

Michael Bass:

Well, as far as I know, it’s pretty wide use several companies, manufacturer, laser devices with fiber optic connections to be used by gastroenterologists one company that made it was in Germany, Messerschmitt which of course was a strange name to associate with medical equipment but there it was.

Richard Miles:

So I imagine this procedure has saved a lot of money and probably a lot of literal pain. Right? What was the standard of care before that they would see the bleeding and then they’d have to go back later and operate or would they just not stop the bleeding?

Michael Bass:

Well, they had to eventually stop the bleeding or you would bleed out cause with serious bleeds the treatment prior to this. And prior to the later knowledge of bacterial cause for stomach ulcers, that was not clear prior to what I did with the fiber optic. And the laser was treatment with antacids, treatment with reducing different kinds of foods, staying away from alcohol, reduce smoking a lot of things,

Richard Miles:

None of which turns out to be terribly effective.

Michael Bass:

And if they were, it took a long time for them to take effect with the laser quarter he treatment, it took the time it took to have an endoscopy, which is maybe a half hour.

Richard Miles:

Wow . So a tremendous leap forward and the ability to treat those conditions.

Michael Bass:

Right. You could begin to heal almost immediately.

Richard Miles:

Okay . Let’s move on to one of the second applications that you have discovered, and that is using nanoparticles that emit visible light for the treatment of tumors. If I understand basically illuminates the tumor, is that sort of the concept involved or do I have that wrong?

Michael Bass:

You have it a little bit confused. Quite literally, I met Sudipta Seal on the crosswalk, going to the student union at UCF and knew that he was looking for help with a problem that he had. And I asked him what was the problem? And he said, sirium oxide nanoparticles have an effect on the radiation treatment of various tumors. The problem that everyone had was they didn’t know what was going on because the nanoparticles were too small to be seen to be located. You didn’t know where they were. So I suggested standing there on the crosswalk, going to the student union and get my lunch. I said, well, you add certain rare earth elements and you can then put a little bit of light on these nanoparticles and they will light up and emit visible light. So you can see them. Well, three days later, his associate showed up in my office with little vials of Sirium oxide, nanoparticles that had been doped and sure enough, they lit up just like I said, they would. And one thing led to another. We learned that these particles in some kinds of tumors go around the cells and in other kinds of tumors, they go into the cell. This again, proves that cancer is more than one disease. And the power of these doped nanoparticles is that you can find them and you can start to understand what they do.

Richard Miles:

So does this aid then in the early detection, can you pick these up faster than other conventional means of detecting tumors?

Michael Bass:

I can’t say that’s not something I’m familiar with. I just know that this kind of nanoparticle serves a special purpose in the radiation treatment. These particles may help the radiation destroy the cancer cells , or they may protect the normal cells that was not known which way it was until we had nanoparticles you could see.

Richard Miles:

It’s made the treatment, I guess, more effective.

Michael Bass:

You can locate them. And so you now know what to do,

Richard Miles:

Right. So I’m guessing Michael, you must be an easy person to talk to because in both these stories, people have sought you out and asked you questions and you’ve given them pretty good responses.

Michael Bass:

Well, as I say, all invention and all creativity starts with asking a question and I’ve been very fortunate to be around people who had the kinds of questions that I could answer. And usually together we would find the solutions.

Richard Miles:

Hey , let’s talk about a third application that I heard you explained . And then after you explain , you said , well, none of you probably understood my explanation, but it has to do with fiber amplifier and its role in communications. Tell us what that means.

Michael Bass:

Okay Currently, all the communications that you do, whether it’s by cell phone or by landline is carried at one point or another on a fiber optic system. Those fiber optics have almost reached their capacity to carry information between telephone calls, which are minimal, but computer to computer image downloads, graphic downloads, video downloads, are burdening the system to where it’s almost completely saturated. You can’t do much more. So in the future, what people are considering is sending different information streams on different patterns of light inside the fiber. Now, the problem is that every now and again, you have to amplify the light so it can continue traveling down the next fiber. And the problem was how do you make an amplifier that exactly reproduces that pattern of light from one fiber to the next? And it was answering that question that led to the invention of these kinds of amplifiers. There are fiber amplifiers that can precisely reproduce the pattern.

Richard Miles:

And so what is this going to do for communications networks? Is this gonna make them faster, more powerful, all of the above?

Michael Bass:

All of the above. When it’s introduced, then it hasn’t happened yet, but it will. It will add to the capacity of existing systems, very substantial amounts of ability to carry more information. Now, the issues that I just described of carrying more information is a rather remarkable thing. It’s not long ago before there were fiber optic communications. You didn’t bother. You didn’t even think about doing such a thing. Can I tell a little story?

Richard Miles:

Yeah sure, absolutely.

Michael Bass:

In 1980, two miracles took place. Now they say, what the heck is he talking about? Well, one miracle was that the United States hockey team beat the Soviet union in hockey. The second miracle was that those Olympics were transmitted on the first fiber optic communication system.

Richard Miles:

Wow, I didn’t know that.

Michael Bass:

Since then, there are now over 2 billion kilometers of fibers in the ground or under the oceans. And it’s insufficient. The demands that humanity has put on communicating has made those fibers, as I said before, almost completely in use. So more capacity as to come either by putting in more fibers, which is very expensive or finding out how to use the existing fibers more effectively, which is where our amplifier comes in.

Richard Miles:

I see. Okay . We talk a lot on this show about unfortunately, good ideas don’t sell themselves. There is a process after which brilliant people like you think of a good idea before it gets into the hands of either individuals or companies or institutions to make use of it. And that generally known as commercialization and a lot of inventors try to set up their own companies, find investors. In other words, do that extra mile to get their idea out there. And others work hand in hand, particularly at universities with technology transfer offices to take care a lot of that heavy lifting you’ve I think I had experienced in sort of both models to some degree or another. Tell us what that’s like in terms of, okay, you’ve got an idea. You’ve tested it. You’ve proved it. It clearly has some sort of commercial application. What happens after that?

Michael Bass:

In most cases, university, people like myself, work through the technology transfer office and that’s where much of my inventions have become commercial. One story though, that tells you how sometimes it happens in ways you can’t expect. We meaning myself and professor Chow. We had organized a group of students and ourselves to study how to most efficiently cool bars of diode lasers. Now, why are we interested in bars of diode lasers? Because they can produce a lot of power. The problem is you have to get the light from the diode laser bar out in some form that you can then use. So while looking at how you would cool them, they had the life flat on a surface, but the light was coming out parallel to the surface. So you couldn’t get at it. And what I came up with together with Louis Chow in this group, we invented a little prism that could be used to turn the light perpendicular to the surface, and then you have all of it and you can focus. It collimated do whatever you want. In the group of people. There was a young man named Dan Rini . Dan realized he was mostly interested in the cooling process, but as he finished his PhD, he had started his own company called Rini Technologies. It was growing in the UCF incubator and he took license to this invention of this little prison. He then licensed that licensed sub-licensed it to a much larger company that makes high power lasers. And apparently they are making these little prisms, including them in their devices, whatever the actual system is. And it’s been a very successful connection. The connection was that Dan knew about what we did. He was in the room when we described these prisms and he realized that it had potential. So he worked with the incubator, which is run in large part by the University Technology Transfer Office. And one thing led to another and they connected.

Richard Miles:

When you’re working on solving a particular problem or coming up with a solution, how much, if at all, do you think about the potential market applications downstream? Are you just trying to solve that one problem? Like the colleague on the bridge on your way to lunch, or are you already starting to feel like, you know, I think this would be really good for this or that application

Michael Bass:

It doesn’t work like that. The question that comes along is how do you solve a particular problem? Usually a technological or a scientific problem. And from it might come a device or an item or a technique that might be called invention. That could be patented. I’ve got 34 patents, but I have almost 200 refereed papers. And more than that in the way of invited talks and so on. So the patents grow out of things that you do, that you don’t plan to invent something at first, as one of the speakers yesterday said he loved to create and invent things. That’s great, but you don’t begin your work thinking of inventing something. You start to answer a question in the process of answering the question. You may come up with something that’s invented .

Richard Miles:

Have there been any surprises in the technologies that you’ve developed in terms of it looks like it’s going to one market application and then ends up in a totally different place.

Michael Bass:

I wish I could answer that one. It’s a tough question, but let me give you one example, okay. Let’s go back to the laser fiber optic treatment from gastrointestinal bleeding. One day, I got a call from the gastroenterologist who was using the stuff that I’d put together for him. He said , you got to come down here and witness this. Well, later that afternoon, a six or seven year old hemophiliac boy came in with his parents. He had lost one of his teeth and the bleeding hadn’t stopped no matter what anyone else did, conventionally, the bleeding didn’t stop. Well when we turned on the laser, it smelled terrible and the boy he didn’t want to do anymore. So we proceeded to give him a quarter. For each time we turned on the laser and $2 and 50 cents later, the bleeding was stopped and he went home and whatever life haemophiliacs would have, he could have, but at least he wasn’t going to die because he was bleeding when his tooth came out. So there are always other things that happen . Something invented for gastrointestinal bleeding was used for that. Other people have now used that same material, the same laser fiber optic system to treat hemorrhoids, to treat other, such things and using a fiber optic with laser light coming through. It is a nice way of putting a laser scalpel in the hands of a surgeon. So it has its expansion in ways that we didn’t think about, we didn’t plan those.

Richard Miles:

Michael. Now we’re going to talk about you and you grew up in the Bronx, right ? Right. What was it like to live in New York city as a kid?

Michael Bass:

It was actually wonderful. The ability to get on a subway and half an hour later, be at the Museum of Natural History or the Hayden Planetarium and do that from when I was maybe eight or nine years old with no thought about anything. It was a different time. In fact, when I tell my daughter in law about making such trips as a kid, she thinks my parents were abusing me by letting me do it on my own at that young age. But everyone did in New York City was a place with tremendous excitement in it about if you will, science, I went to Stuyvesant High School, which is an extraordinarily selective school. You must pass a certain exam with a grade higher than a certain amount. And then they might take you in or they might not, but you have to achieve that. And while at Stuyvesant, which was in Manhattan still is I went to an exhibit at the, a United Nations of atoms for peace, and I saw a cloud chamber in operation. And that was fascinating. And it made me think that I wanted to study physics living somewhere else. I might not have seen that cloud chamber. Okay. To give you an idea of what I enjoyed most about living in New York.

Richard Miles:

So when you got into this high school, the high performing selective high school, right? You were saying that among the people, most surprised for your parents, because when you were younger, were you not a standout student? Or why were they surprised?

Michael Bass:

Yeah, actually it was a little earlier when I was in elementary school through sixth grade, I was a very average, maybe even a little below average student because I was bored witless. I had no idea that it made any difference to my future. If my handwriting was perfect, man , I’m lefthanded . So that makes it even more strange. But when I was selected for what in New York is called or was called the rapid advance, where you went in to seventh and ninth grade, you skipped eighth grade, you took three years in two, and then you are a year younger than everyone, but you could do this. When I was selected for that, my parents were the most surprised people that I can imagine. They didn’t think that I had that kind of capability. And so that was kind of a kickstart to my future of using my mind and doing things like this, studying physics.

Richard Miles:

Were either of your parents, scientists or researchers?

Michael Bass:

No, neither was, I had an uncle who was a civil engineer and that’s about as close as we got, but no, my father and mother probably never went beyond high school. He was a realtor and she eventually, when I was going to high school, she started to work as a legal secretary.

Richard Miles:

Any siblings that went into scientific fields?

Michael Bass:

No, my sister finished high school and was glad to be done with education. She was nine years older than me and had different ideas in mind.

Richard Miles:

So I’m sure Michael, at this point in your career, you are probably routinely asked to mentor, or you’re asked for advice from everyone from college students to grad students, to PhD candidates. I’m curious, what sort of questions do you get? Are they all highly specific? Do I go to this college or that college? Or do you get more life advice type of questions? What do I do with my life? What should I study? And then what are your,

Michael Bass:

There are several, I’ll give you a story again. A couple of years back, a friend of mine was invited to speak at boys state in Tallahassee. And he asked me to come along because it was a long drive. He wanted someone with him and I would be able to speak a little bit. So when I given my little talk about the laser fiber optic GI bleeding treatment, because that’s something he could relate to easily, I finished and perhaps 200 of these boys came over and stood around. They asking questions about where they should go to school. What should they study? And reason I tell this story is that there’s a real need out there amongst the young people for guidance as to why would you want to go into technology? Well, the future is greater than the past. A small statistic. That makes a big difference of all the engineers and scientists in the world that ever existed more than 90% of them are alive today, which is why the squeal of technology’s speeding up today. Today we have telephones that we carry around in our pockets that have more computing capability than the whole world had in the 1960s. Now that’s a remarkable change in things and that kind of technological change is coming more and more quickly in all fields of endeavor. So when I do talk to students about that, I talk to them about the vast opportunities that exist. And I don’t try to aim them at a particular subject, whether it’s biology or physics or chemistry, or what have you, that’s their choice to make. But to realize that technology is a major, major player in the human experience is something I try to communicate. While at UCF, I created a course called the culture of science, which dealt with all the subjects of how science came about, how it affected the society around it and how society affected it. And it’s something that most students never hear about. And I did this course and I taught it for undergraduates. I taught it for honors classes. I taught it for graduate students, the responses. I wish I’d known that before I started. So it’s a very happy thing to have been able to do that for all those students,

Richard Miles:

The Culture Science sounds like a great program for the Cade Museum. So we would love to have you maybe come up and give a talk about that, because that’s one of the things we try to do at the museum is trying to get people to think creatively about the tools of science, because to us , that is the predicate of invention, right? I mean, if data by itself, isn’t going to get you in invention. It has to be a way of thinking about the data that gets you to do something useful.

Michael Bass:

Thank you. Yeah, that is effectively what the Culture of Science is. It’s the way of going from fundamental, basic subject to actually something, a thing that works and helps people and does something. And sometimes the thing that is developed gets used improperly, as we can all imagine things happening, but if you’re not aware of these issues, you’re not going to function well in our future society.

Richard Miles:

Mike, I want to thank you very much for being on Radio Cade today. I feel bad. We only got through at most three of your 34 patents. So we’re going to have to do another six or seven installments of this show, but fascinating background, fascinating way of looking at your own profession. And thank you very much for joining us.

Michael Bass:

It’s been my pleasure. I enjoyed it.

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