U-M discovery leading to LASIK is a Golden Goose
A bladeless technique for eye surgery that originated at the University of Michigan Gérard Mourou Center for Ultrafast Optical Science was honored with a 2022 AAAS Golden Goose Award, presented at a public ceremony Sept. 14, 2022. It was one of three technologies honored at the ceremony.
Hundreds of thousands of people every year choose a vision correction surgery that uses lasers to correct the shape of the cornea, which helps focus light through the pupil of the eye. But this surgery would not be available were it not for a lab accident followed by curiosity and persistence of the ophthalmologists and laser scientists and engineers.
The team members recognized were Tibor Juhasz (UC Irvine), a former research associate professor in ophthalmology and biomedical engineering at U-M; Ron Kurtz (RxSight), a former assistant professor of ophthalmology at U-M; Michigan alum Detao Du (Rayz Technologies), A. D. Moore Distinguished University Professor Emeritus Gérard Mourou (Ecole Polytechnique); and Donna Strickland (University of Waterloo), who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in physics with Mourou.
It all started at the NSF Science and Technology Center for Ultrafast Optical Science (CUOS) founded in 1991—now known as the Gérard Mourou Center for Ultrafast Optical Science after its first leader. Mourou and Donna Strickland had developed a way to make ultrafast laser pulses at the University of Rochester, and CUOS was the first big proving ground for that technology, known as chirped pulse amplification.
“We needed this money to make new lasers, and also to do curiosity-driven research,” said Mourou, who quickly gathered together a group of scientists from several disciplines to pursue ultrafast laser research. He oversaw the research, but he also gave the researchers themselves free rein to follow their creative instincts.
One of those researchers was graduate student Detao Du (PhD Physics). As Du related in the ceremony, he was working in the lab and took off his glasses for a moment when the laser was still on. He caught a flash of light out of the corner of his eye and knew his mistake.
“I had been studying damage with the material—involuntarily, my eyeball became one of the test samples,” recalled Du.
Du went to get checked out at the Kellogg Eye Center, where he met Ron Kurtz, MD, who had just completed his first year of residency.
“I was curious as to what kind of laser this was,” said Kurtz, after seeing the precise nature of the burns. He learned about femtosecond lasers, which emit pulses that are about a quadrillionth of a second in duration.
Kurtz recognized the possibilities for this laser and eye surgery, and immediately met with Mourou. A new partnership was born that connected the medical school with engineering. It is one of many such connections at Michigan.
In 1994, Kurtz connected with Tibor Juhasz, PhD, at a professional conference. Juhasz had been consulting with a company that was developing short pulse lasers for eye surgery, but the lasers they used simply couldn’t do the job.
Mourou brought Juhasz to CUOS, thanks to the funding provided through the government, to further develop the technology.
“The initial system that I was doing experiments [on] with Detao took an entire room,” said Kurtz.
They are now the size of a shoebox.
In 1997, Juhasz and Kurtz co-founded IntraLase – giving the world access to bladeless eye surgery for corrective eye surgery.
There are a couple details to the story that are worth highlighting.
First, NSF did not fund Mourou and the Center to do research related to the eye. It took the accident to bring together the goals of the medical doctors with potential applications of the new lasers being developed.
“It came out of the blue,” said Mourou. “It was total serendipity.”
Second, Mourou gave credit to both the students doing research, and also specifically to University President James Duderstadt, who was a physicist. Without the support of this visionary leader, who funded the research after learning about the accident – rather than shutting down the lab, things may have turned out very differently.
The damage to Du’s eye remains, but he reports that his brain compensates for it.
“This is the beauty of doing science,” said Du. “It’s not completely predictable.”
As for CUOS, it is still running cutting-edge lasers, beginning the first “debugging” run of what will be the most powerful laser in the U.S. just last week.