Whether surgeons slice with a traditional scalpel or cut away with a surgical laser, most medical operations end up removing some healthy tissue, along with the bad. This means that for delicate areas like the brain, throat, and digestive tract, physicians and patients have to balance the benefits of treatment against possible collateral damage.

To help shift this balance in the patient's favor, a team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin has developed a small, flexible endoscopic medical device fitted with a femtosecond laser "scalpel" that can remove diseased or damaged tissue while leaving healthy cells untouched. The researchers will present their work at this year's Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics (CLEO: 2012) in San Jose, Calif., taking place May 6-11.

The device, which was engineered with off-the-shelf parts, includes a laser capable of generating pulses of light a mere 200 quadrillionths of a second in duration. These bursts are powerful, but are so fleeting that they spare surrounding tissue. The laser is coupled with a mini-microscope that provides the precise control necessary for highly delicate surgery. Using an imaging technique known as "two-photon fluorescence," this specialized microscope relies on infrared light that penetrates up to one millimeter into living tissue, which allows surgeons to target individual cells or even smaller parts such as cell nuclei.

The entire endoscope probe package, which is thinner than a pencil and less than an inch long (9.6 millimeters in circumference and 23 millimeters long), can fit into large endoscopes, such as those used for colonoscopies.

"All the optics we tested can go into a real endoscope," says Adela Ben-Yakar of the University of Texas at Austin, the project's principal investigator. "The probe has proven that it's functional and feasible and can be [manufactured] commercially."

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