Conversion of Visible Light to Infrared for Safer Cancer Therapies

A method that turns visible light to infrared could be used to treat cancer and other diseases more effectively and without damaging healthy tissues.

Researchers from two universities have collaborated to develop a new chemical process that can absorb infrared light and re-emit it as visible energy, paving the way for breakthroughs in cancer therapies and other applications.

A team comprised of scientists from Columbia University and Harvard University developed the method, which allows harmless radiation to penetrate living tissue and other materials without the damage typically caused by high-intensity light exposure, said Tomislav Rovis, a professor of chemistry at Columbia who was a part of the research team.

“The findings are exciting because we were able to perform a series of complex chemical transformations that usually require high-energy, visible light using a noninvasive, infrared light source,” he said in a news release.

An illustration depicts a new method researchers at Columbia University and Harvard University developed to turn visible light to infrared. The technology could be used to develop new cancer therapies. (Image source: Melissa Ann Ashley/Columbia University)

Long a Problem

Indeed, scientists for many years have tried to solve the problem of sending visible light inside the body for treatments of disease—such as cancer—without damaging internal organs or healthy tissue.

Typically how it’s done today is using photodynamic therapy (PDT), which employs a special drug called a photosensitizer that’s triggered by light to produce a highly reactive form of oxygen. This oxygen can destroy or inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

However, PDT is currently limited to the treatment of localized or surface cancers, Rovis said. The new technology—called triplet fusion upconversion—solves this problem, he said.

“Rather than poisoning the entire body with a drug that causes the death of malignant cells and healthy cells, a nontoxic drug combined with infrared light could selectively target the tumor site and irradiate cancer cells,” Rovis explained.

Triplet fusion upconversion involves a chain of processes that basically fuses two infrared photons into a single visible light photon, harvesting low-energy infrared light and converting it to light that can then be absorbed by optoelectronic devices, such as solar cells.


The process also allows visible light to be easily reflected by many surfaces, whereas infrared light has longer wavelengths that can penetrate dense materials. This is different than most technologies used for PDT, which only capture visible light and waste the rest of the solar spectrum, researchers said.

“One can imagine many potential applications where barriers are in the way to controlling matter,” Rovis said of the invention.

Indeed, the researchers were able to use the technology to fine-tune infrared light to longer wavelengths, which allowed them to noninvasively pass through a wide range of barriers--such as paper, plastic molds, blood, and tissue, said Luis Campos, associate professor of chemistry at Columbia, who also worked on the research. They even were able to pulse light through two strips of bacon wrapped around a flask, he said. Researchers published a paper detailing their work in the journal Nature.


Scientists anticipate that their invention could have a wide-ranging impact. In addition to cancer treatment, light therapy also could be effective in treating a number of other diseases and conditions, including traumatic brain injury, damaged nerves and spinal cords, and hearing loss, they said.

Other potential applications include solar-power production, drug development, sensors, food-safety methods, and processing microelectronic components.

The team is currently testing photon-upconversion technologies for tissue engineering and drug delivery, and hope to one day optimize their method for widespread use in medicine and industry, Campos said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.


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