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Sound Engineering: Fighting disease with optics

Jeremy Rogers, a newly hired assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hopes to harness the light-scattering properties of tissue to help fight disease. Rogers says that new optical processes can help researchers develop affordable, less-invasive methods of screening for cancer and other diseases. In turn, his work could have a serious impact on how health care resources are allocated.

John Steeno: Everyone knows lasers are cool, but Jeremy Rogers says lasers can even help us stay ahead of disease. Rogers is a newly hired assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UW-Madison. His research centers on developing new optical instrumentation and imaging methods, which he has applied to the study of light scattering properties of biological tissues.

Jeremy Rogers: So a lot of people underappreciate how scattering tissue is. Take a dark room and a laser pointer, you put it on your finger and the light propagates all over the place. It lights up. It’s crazy. This is really the fundamental thing that we’re after, is being able to shine light into tissue, let it bounce around and do its thing, and then look at what comes out. And from that you determine optical properties of the tissue, which tell you a lot about them.

John Steeno: Rogers hopes to apply his study of tissue scatter to a wide range of purposes, from eye disease to cancer screening. 

Jeremy Rogers: So, in our case, if we do this with tissue, by measuring that shape very precisely, we learn something about the tissue scattering properties. And, even more importantly, those tissue scattering properties appear to have a very clear link with risk of cancer. So things like mutations that occur—that presage cancer—that really are indications of risk well before you even begin to have tumorogenesis, for example. The changes, the mutations that occur throughout an organ, are something called field carcinogenesis. This actually changes the scattering properties of the tissue in a way that is detectable. So this means that we can actually use this phenomenon to actually try to detect and screen for cancer risk. So this, to me, is just really amazing. And the opportunities to apply this to a wide range of additional applications, we can think of all kinds of, cancer screening is a huge one. I think of it as a fundamentally new way to measure tissue. We can measure scattering properties very precisely in a very non-invasive way. 

John Steeno: This less-invasive disease screening method, Rogers feels, could go a long way not only towards more cost-effective cancer screening for patients, but it could also help screen for many other diseases, and help conserve national healthcare resources. 

Jeremy Rogers: Coming up with ways that you can really cost effectively screen people and identify people with risk and then really spend the expensive dollars of healthcare on people that are really high risk, and free up some of the unnecessary procedures. As an engineer, I like to solve problems. I look forward to working with people that have problems that they want to try to identify new, clever, elegant solutions to.

John Steeno: Rogers also has affiliations with the McPherson Eye Research Institute and the Laboratory for Optical and Computational Instrumentation. For more information on Rogers and his research, look up his faculty page at

John Steeno