Doctors could use new 'Star Trek' laser device for health checks

laser test

7 June 2018

  • New device can analyse key medical indicators without any need for needles 
  • It has already been trialled as a way of helping diagnose strokes and skin cancers
  • A wearable version is also in development, that could be a mini ‘lab on the wrist’ of athletes
  • Device is a step nearer the Star Trek ‘medical tricorder’ which uses non-invasive scanning technology to analyse a patient’s health

A new machine has been unveiled which could allow doctors to carry out a battery of health checks with a beam of light.

The laser-based system, developed by researchers at Aston University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, uses light beams to perform painless, non-invasive checks on medical indicators such as cardiovascular performance and other key metabolic information, which can be useful looking at energy levels or diet balance.

The tests, which take just minutes, can help assess variables such as regulatory rhythms, the metabolic activity of tissue (eg how effectively tissues are consuming oxygen) and a range of tissue biomarkers (providing evidence of a particular disease or physiological state) – and no needles are necessary.

Professor Edik Rafailov, of Aston Institute of Photonic Technologies (AIPT), said:  ‘This technology will allow a range of tests to be taken quickly, painlessly and without any reason for patients to feel nervous – there are no needles involved. Results are instantaneous, which is better for patients and more efficient for healthcare providers.’

The device uses three separate lasers and several techniques to carry out its analysis:

  • Laser doppler flowmetry to look at variables such as how effectively a subject’s blood is being delivered to their tissue
  • Tissue oxymetry to measure levels of oxygen in blood vessels and tissue
  • Tissue fluorescence to assess cell metabolism, a technique useful in areas such as obesity prognosis and cancer diagnosis

The tests involve nothing more stressful than a laser beam being shone on a patient’s skin – the patient feels nothing. The results are processed by a computer there and then, and displayed as easy-to-interpret graphs.

Dr Sergei Sokolovsky, Senior Research Fellow at AIPT, said:  ‘We have managed to bring together multiple technologies in a machine that is compact, simple to use and – from a patient’s perspective – extremely user-friendly. It is a huge step forward in terms of improving the speed of diagnostic work and also in terms of reducing invasive tests.’

The machine has already been used as part of the diagnostic procedure for strokes and skin cancers. For example, it can constantly monitor blood delivery above the eyebrows, helping doctors mitigate the risk of stroke in patients with hypertension. And it is a high-precision way of identifying the boundaries of head and neck skin cancers, helping surgeons avoid tumour reoccurrence and reducing the need for additional cosmetic surgery.

The device also has non-medical applications. The data it provides can help athletes determine their optimal levels of physical exercise, helping to prevent stress and exhaustion. 

A prototype of a wearable monitor has been developed that athletes can simply wear on their wrists, like other fitness monitoring devices. Such a device could also be extremely useful for diagnostic work away from surgeries and hospitals, taking us closer to the ‘medical tricorder’ device made famous by the Star Trek series.

Much of the technology is ready to go into production now, and Aston recently launched Aston Medical Technology to commercialise inventions such as this.


Notes to editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a university since 1966, Aston is a long-established research-led university known for its world-class teaching quality, and strong links to business and the professions. Aston University is located in Birmingham, and Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive.

Aston has been a leading university for graduate employment success for more than 25 years, and its students do extremely well in securing top jobs and careers. Aston’s strong relationships with industry partners mean it understands the needs of employers, which is why we Aston is ranked in the top 20 for graduate employability.

About Professor Edik Rafailov

Edik has more than 30 years of research experience in the development of laser technology. He has authored and co-authored more than 450 articles and holds 11 UK and two US patents. Edik coordinated the €14.7million FP7 FAST-DOT project – developing ultrafast lasers for biophotonics applications – and the €12.5million NEWLED project, which aims to develop a new generation of white LEDs. 

Currently, Edik is coordinating the H2020 FET MESO-BRAIN project and participating in H2020 RISE VISGEN project. His research interests include high-power continuous wave lasers, ultrashort-pulse lasers, generation of UV/visible/IR/MIR and THz radiation, nano-structures, nonlinear and integrated optics, and biomedical photonics.

About Dr Sergei Sokolovski

Sergei is a Senior Research Fellow at Aston’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, developing non-invasive laser diagnostic systems and phototreatments. He began his scientific career in Belarus, where he built his knowledge of photobiology and biophysics, before working for universities including Jena, Karlsruhe, York, Glasgow and Dundee, studying cell photonics, cell stress and hormone signalling, ion channel regulation, membrane proteins trafficking, and genes regulation. 

In 2008 he moved into biomedical research, developing new drug delivery methods for the treatment of genetic skin diseases. Sergei has spent 25 years studying the light perception and stress responses of organisms, and developing photonic devices for non-invasive diagnostics and disease treatment for conditions ranging from diabetes to cardiovascular diseases and cancer. He is co-investigator and/or co-author in numerous projects, including BBSRC and EPSRC, ABLADE, PHOQUOS and MESO-BRAIN.

For more information, call Kenny Campbell on 07824 156 311 or email