Portuguese researcher develops “LaserLeap”: the announced end of syringes?

Researcher Carlos Serpa and the group he belongs to at the Chemistry Department of the University of Coimbra have just […]

Researcher Carlos Serpa and the group to which he belongs in the Chemistry Department of the University of Coimbra have just returned from "Photonics West 2012" with a prize in the bag: the project called “LaserLeap” was one of the two winners in a technologically very competitive competition. But after all what is LaserLeap and what is it for?

António Piedade (AP) – What is photonics and what are the multidisciplinary areas necessary for its development?

Carlos Serpa (CS) – Photonics generically refers to the generation, manipulation and use of light, covering all light applications from the ultraviolet to the visible to the infrared.

In practice, Photonics as a scientific discipline is closely related to the invention of the laser and the beginning of its use in science and technology in the 60s.

Naturally, developments in the area are very much indebted to the Physics of Optics discipline, but currently it can be considered a cross-sectional area, with the domain of Biophotonics (interaction of biological tissues and light) and applications in information technology being emerging areas.

AP – How did you come up with the idea of ​​using knowledge from this scientific area for applications in medicine?

CS – The research group, of which I am a member, has an experience of about 20 years in the subject of Photoacoustics. What led to the development of LaserLeap technology is essentially due to this extensive experience.

But the specific event arose with a need to quickly pass through the skin a molecular entity that was under development at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Coimbra. It actually arose out of a need!

There was some evidence in the scientific literature that pressure waves could aid skin permeation. As we had accumulated experience in the production of pressure waves, we decided to experiment, having obtained very good results initially and which we have been optimizing.

AP – What did your participation in Photonics West 2012 consist of?

CS – The “SPIE Photonics West” met in San Francisco with about 20 participants. It is a series of scientific conferences and also a fair where laser and optics producers show the latest developments (for example, the Portuguese company Multiwave had a stand at the exhibition).

We presented a scientific communication but also decided to meet the challenge of showing (in 3 minutes) a promising technology in terms of practical use, in the real world.

Thus, we entered a competition in the field of Biophotonics in which we had to demonstrate that the technology developed had social and commercial interest and was also mature enough to become a marketable product.

We were fortunate that a jury composed of two photonics businessmen, a university professor and a venture capital manager considered our proposal to be the best.

AP – What is and what are the applications of “LaserLeap” technology?

CS – The LaserLeap project consists of developing an active skin permeation technique that, by using low-intensity laser light, causes the reversible opening of “pores” in the skin, thus allowing the passage of a drug.

This is achieved through the very efficient formation of a pressure wave in a suitable material, concomitant with the absorption of laser light. This pressure wave is propagated to the skin, causing an “earthquake” there. It is this disturbance that will allow the drug or cosmetic product to pass through.

There are perspectives of use in several medical procedures that currently use a syringe. Right now, our priority targets are dermatological and cosmetic applications.

In these fields there are several treatments in which it is necessary to ensure that a high concentration of drug reaches the dermis in a few minutes, something that we have already proven to be possible with our methodology.

After overcoming some technical challenges, the use in vaccination is our objective. This last situation is particularly important, as vaccination in children is usually done through injections, causing pain and fear.

AP – What or what are the advantages of this new way of administering drugs through the skin?

CS – The use of low energy lasers, the fact that the laser is never in contact with the skin and that the process is painless and reversible, opens up perspectives for use in various treatments.

The fact that it opens up an alternative for the administration of low and high molecular weight molecules through the skin, it may be a credible alternative to oral administration in specific cases.

Interesting examples are the new biotechnological drugs, whose oral administration is practically impossible, given their destruction in and by the intestinal tract.

As we have already proven that we promote the permeation of high molecular weight molecules such as proteins, this is a promising field of application.


AP – When will the citizen be able to have access to this technology and in which application areas will it appear as an advantageous option?

CS – The main applications are dermatological and cosmetic, but other specific therapeutic applications are also worth considering. The field of skin cancer or pain treatment are examples.

It's hard to pinpoint an exact date for the technology to be available. Right now, we have a prototype that we are already using and we are going to start the regulatory process with the European and American agencies.

The patent was licensed by the University of Coimbra to a company that we formed (www.laserleap.com) and we are all seriously committed to bringing this company to fruition!

The certainty is that we have a motivated team to take this idea to the end, so that the technology is available as quickly as possible to improve people's lives.