About the Laser Centre

At the National Medical Laser Centre, translational research brings experts from varied disciplines to focus on challenges faced by the medical world. Rigorous experiments tease out the details of how lasers and living tissues interact, so that light can be used to diagnose and treat some of the diseases and disabilities present in human populations. These experiments form a large part of the research which helps UCH's doctors find the best ways to treat patients, and gives UCL its privileged reputation at the forefront of scientific innovation.

History of the Laser Centre

The National Medical Laser Centre was set up in the Department of Surgery in University College London Medical School in 1984 as a means of consolidating the wide range of medical laser activities conducted in the University College London Hospitals since 1978. It was supported principally by a Special Medical Development on Lasers from the Department of Health and by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now part of Cancer Research UK). In 1990, a unique Chair in Laser Medicine and Surgery was created for the Director of the Laser Centre, Stephen Bown. In 1995, support was taken over by UCL (University College London) and the UCL Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

The philosophy of the centre is to undertake laboratory studies to understand the many ways in which light can interact with living tissue and then to use these results to develop new techniques for the detection, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of human diseases. In the 1980’s, the centre pioneered such techniques as the endoscopic (non-surgical) control of haemorrhage from peptic ulcers, the endoscopic use of lasers to relieve obstruction in the gullet and lungs due to advanced cancers and the destruction of tumours in the middle of solid organs like the liver, simply by passing laser fibres through needles inserted directly into the tumour through the skin under guidance from a CT or ultrasound scanner. Technology has evolved, but the same biological principles are now in widespread use for treating these patients with minimally invasive techniques, avoiding the need for major surgery.

Photodynamic Therapy

Laser PDT with doctors

Since the late 1980’s, the research has focused more on photodynamic therapy (PDT), a technique for the localised destruction of diseased tissue with light (usually from a laser) after prior administration of a photosensitiser, a drug that makes the tissue sensitive to light. This is an exciting new way of destroying diseased tissue wherever it arises in the body. The NMLC has played a major role in understanding how PDT affects a broad range of normal and diseased tissues and how these effects can be produced deep inside the body using minimally invasive techniques, so avoiding the need for major surgery. This work has shown that PDT can destroy pre-cancerous changes in the lining of hollow organs like the oesophagus without damaging adjacent normal tissue layers, using endoscopic techniques, and that cancers of organs like the skin and mouth can be treated with better cosmetic and functional results than can be achieved with conventional techniques like surgery and radiotherapy. The NMLC was the first centre in the world to undertake image guided PDT of cancers of the prostate and pancreas and currently is undertaking clinical trials to develop these exciting new techniques. The centre has also explored the use of PDT in arterial disease, for preventing recurrence after balloon angioplasty for obstructed arteries and for localised infections.

Leading Translational Research

In addition to PDT, the NMLC is a world leader in the development of optical diagnostic techniques, particularly elastic scattering spectroscopy. This is a means of detecting pre-cancerous changes in tissue that looks normal to the naked eye, by the simple process of shining a pulse of white light on the target tissue (a painless procedure, like taking a photo) and undertaking a careful analysis of the light that is scattered back.

Scientists with Laser ESS

The NMLC is recognised globally as a leading centre for translational research in medical optics. More than 300 scientific papers have been published from the centre related to the medical applications of lasers and Prof Bown has given invited lectures in 42 countries around the world. Researchers from 30 countries have undertaken projects in the centre of 3 months to 4 years duration, with many more scientific and clinical individuals coming for shorter visits.

In laboratory work, the Centre is exploring new developments of PDT to make the treatment more selective for cancer, more precise and easier to deliver and effective for a wider range of cancers and other diseases. On the clinical side, the centre is currently working closely with the Department of Health and Prof Sir Mike Richards (Director of NHS Cancer services) to prepare a report outlining which applications of PDT should be made generally available and which newer indications are worthy of further development.