Zygmunt Gryczynski

Lighting New Paths to Health

W.A. ”Tex” Moncrief Jr. Chair of Physics

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Despite specialized lighting and the magnification available in modern operating rooms, doctors often feel they’re working in the dark. That’s why Zygmunt Gryczynski uses his expertise in biophysics to envision fluorophores – light-interactive substances that help surgeons see better.

“Thirty years ago in my native Poland, there was no application for fluorescence,” says Gryczynski.

At the time, there was no hint that fluorescence would become the microscope of the 21st century. Using camera systems combined with near-infrared light and fluorescent dyes that highlight diseased tissue and cells, doctors can see through the human body’s complex conjunction of nerves, tissues and veins to distinguish tumors from healthy structures.

But ideally, cancer would be discovered long before any symptoms, or tumors, showed.

“Cancer begins on the level of protein,” Gryczynski explains. “We are built from protein, and most diseases are caused by proteins misfolding. If we can detect cancer or diseases like Alzheimer’s caused by protein buildup in the brain when proteins first begin to misfold, we have a much better chance of treating it.”

Fluorescence is very good at this detection.

“It’s not only beautiful but also extremely sensitive, and the only way we have found so far to study single molecules.” Gryczynski explains. Fluorophores act as “tags” or “labels,” identifying different parts of the cell or helping detect specific proteins or DNAs.

“Now we can see, on the cellular level, cancer-related genes, proteins and biomarkers. What used to be available only through biopsy can now be assessed noninvasively, by imaging the expression of biomarkers”

With 40 million surgical procedures performed in the United States per year, there is a real need to light the way forward. Thankfully, there are dreamers like Gryczynski who have the vision to pave the way.