‘Frisco Bay

I spent the first week of February in San Francisco; some of it looking at Alcatraz Island and pondering the best bits of Point Blank, which is all of them, but most of it deep in the warrens of the Moscone Center while the Photonics West trade show was held upstairs. Among other things I was there to help write the show’s daily newspaper and sit in on some of the technical conference sessions, a job which always amounts to a crash course in the state-of-the-art of five or six different inter-connected industries. The fruits of that will feed through for a while in one form or another; here are a couple of the early results.

It’s not news that Raman spectroscopy should be able to spot malignant tumours in early stages of development and be a real boon to cancer diagnosis, but it will definitely be news when it becomes a practical clinical proposition. Vancouver-based Raman specialists Verisante won an award in San Francisco for its Aura probe, which looks like it might be the answer for skin cancer, and a version able to be used on internal cancers in the lungs and bowel is being trialled now with FDA approval on the agenda. I interviewed Verisante’s CEO about it, and the advantages of Vancouver as a location for effective cancer research. Among the things cut for space was the fact that he spent considerable time and money trying to make terahertz technology work in this field, before realising that he was backing the wrong horse and switching to Raman instead.

Bioimaging is booming, since the technology is at that stage of development where each incremental step opens up numerous potential applications. But the keyword is “potential”, and the inherent risk is that clinical usefulness gets left behind in the rush forward, with the technology delivering more and more information and the scientists having less and less idea exactly where it comes from. This sentiment was articulated neatly by Bruce Tromberg from the Beckman Laser Institute as being “the really beautiful but also somewhat horrifying thing about this field.”

And I interviewed Paul Thurk, a venture capitalist from the US now based in Ireland, about the cultural differences in his line of work that pertain on either side of the Atlantic. Turns out there are plenty, not just in things like employment law and pension plans, but also in peoples’ attitudes to those sort of topics too. This is far from trivial when it comes to successfully prodding a promising technology forward on an international stage and not having the enterprise crumble in your hands. The interview is in the third issue of the Photonics West daily publication, which for now is only available here as a pdf download, but the topic will be back.