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Photo of Cherry A. Murray
Cherry A. Murray
Principal Associate Director for Science and Technology

Biomedical Technology Has a Home at Livermore

INNOVATIVE science and the exploration of advanced technologies for biomedical applications are needed to improve human health worldwide and to address the national need of affordable health care for an aging population. When facing these challenges, biomedical research institutions benefit from a variety of research and development activities at Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories, which are sources of special capabilities and expertise. However, at times, the question arises, “Why Lawrence Livermore, a national security laboratory?”

The ties between our national security work and human health have deep roots in the Laboratory’s history. In 1963, Livermore formed a biomedical research program to better understand the effects of ionizing radiation on biological systems—an important issue for worker safety within the nuclear weapons complex and for the resettlement efforts in the Marshall Islands following the end of atmospheric nuclear testing. Research efforts focused on chromosome damage soon led to the development of chromosome sorting technology here and at Los Alamos National Laboratory, culminating in the birth of the Human Genome Project. Today, we are a partner in DOE’s Joint Genome Institute and a developer of advanced biological agent detectors and pathogen signatures used for homeland security and health applications.

In addition, the ties between developing technologies for national security and for biomedical applications are numerous. Livermore’s expertise in accelerator technology and radiography stems from our hydrodynamic testing. Radiography is also important for the nondestructive evaluation of weapons as part of stockpile surveillance programs. We are now working with a licensee to develop the first compact proton therapy system, an accelerator that would fit in any major cancer center at a fifth the cost of larger machines in use today. The accelerator is based on a technology breakthrough made at Livermore and is a result of our continuing interest in compact accelerators for future hydrodynamic testing at the Nevada Test Site.

Laser technologies also bridge national security and biomedical applications. Adaptive optics are key to the design and construction of the National Ignition Facility, and a microelectromechanical adaptive optics system is behind a new ophthalmoscope that won a Laboratory team an R&D 100 Award last year. The ophthalmoscope sharpens images of retinal cell layers, allowing clinicians to diagnose macular degeneration and other retinal diseases much earlier than was previously possible. Lasers also are important components in advanced diagnostics for many nondestructive evaluation applications, and they are the reason for our collaboration with the University of California at Davis’s Center for Biophotonics, Science and Technology­—one of our many partnerships with Davis in medical technologies and cancer research.

Materials science research for national security and broader applications is also a Laboratory strength. Recent research includes work on shape-memory polymers (SMPs)—a class of “smart” materials that, as a result of an external stimulus, can change from a deformed shape back to their original shape. SMPs are increasingly used in medical devices, aerospace technologies, and textiles, where their dynamic response can change material performance. They are both inexpensive and easy to manufacture.

The article Shaping the Future of Aneurysm Treatments describes an application using SMPs to improve the treatment of aneurysms. The research team has synthesized new materials with superior properties over those commercially available today and demonstrated biocompatibility and utility. Remarkable progress has been made by combining theory, experiment, and simulation. We look forward to seeing such a promising technology adopted by the medical industry.

This multidisciplinary project—and the application of our technological advances to a broad range of important national needs—exemplifies the mission of the Laboratory and the creativity of our scientists and engineers.

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