Three scientists who invented imaging technology that revolutionized how ophthalmologists diagnose diseases of the eye have won a Lasker Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in medicine.
James G. Fujimoto and Eric A. Swanson, both affiliated with MIT, and David Huang, who collaborated with them as a PhD and medical school student at MIT and Harvard and now works at Oregon Health & Science University, will share the $250,000 award. Nearly one in four Lasker laureates have ended up winning Nobel Prizes, according to the Lasker Foundation, which has awarded 410 prizes since 1945.
The three scientists won for their invention in 1991 of optical coherence tomography, or OCT, the first technology that enabled doctors to see a two- and three-dimensional cross-sectional image of the retina. OCT resembles an ultrasound scan of internal organs, except it doesn’t use sound waves. Instead, a beam of light is used to quickly scan the eye and generate an image without anything touching the patient. This painless scan takes less than 10 minutes, and is now the standard of care for diagnosing retina diseases.
With advances in the technology over the past three decades, eye doctors can “make earlier diagnoses than ever before possible,” the foundation said.
Ophthalmologists use OCT machines in an estimated 30 million examinations a year worldwide. The resulting high-resolution images have greatly improved how eye doctors diagnose and manage the three leading causes of blindness – macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma.
Fujimoto, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and expert on lasers, said he was “thrilled and grateful” to win the award but happier that optical coherence tomography has become widely used to map the back of the eye.
“If it contributes to public health, if it improves quality of life, that’s my primary motivation,” said the 65-year-old professor, who described the technology with the two other scientists in an influential 1991 article in the journal Science.
During an OCT examination, the patient sits in front of a compact machine and rests his or her chin on a support to keep the head motionless. The patient focuses his or her vision on a dot or a small picture in the machine. The equipment then scans the eye to obtain images of the layers of the retina and optic nerve.
OCT was developed through a collaboration of the New England Eye Center at Tufts Medical Center, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, according to the eye center.
The technology initially came out Fujimoto’s laboratory at MIT. He enlisted Huang to harness a light-based phenomenon called interference to see into biological structures, according to the foundation. Swanson, a Lincoln Laboratory engineer at the time with experience in laser communication in outer space, then joined the team. Swanson is an entrepreneur and research affiliate at MIT.
OCT was first used on a patient outside of the laboratory at the New England Eye Center in 1994, according to the center. By 1996, the first commercially available device was developed by Carl Zeiss Meditec.
The imaging technology has been used in other areas of medicine, including cardiology to detect the buildup of fats and cholesterol in arteries.
Fujimoto, Huang, and Swanson shared one of three Lasker Awards announced Thursday. The two other awards went to scientists at Google DeepMind and the Netherlands Cancer Institute.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.