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Laser light from Free-Electron Laser used for first time in human surgery

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Laser light with a precise wavelength of 6.45 microns has an invisible kind of magic. It can slice through soft tissue coolly and cleanly, with less collateral damage than the sharpest steel scalpel.

Its special qualities were discovered five years ago by researchers at Vanderbilt University's free-electron laser center. The scientists still don't know exactly why infrared light of this specific wavelength works so well, but it got its first clinical test on Friday, December 17.

Under the expert guidance of Michael Copeland-a former Vanderbilt neurosurgeon now in private practice in Kansas City, Missouri-a beam of infrared light tuned precisely at 6.45 microns (6.45 thousandths of a millimeter) successfully removed a sugar-cube-sized amount of tissue from the center of a golf-ball-sized tumor in the brain of Virginia Whitaker, 78, from Kansas City, Missouri. The operation took place on Friday, December 17 at Vanderbilt's W. M. Keck Foundation Free-Electron Laser Center.

It is the first time that a free-electron laser (FEL), a powerful type of laser adopted by the Defense Department as part of the "Star Wars" missile defense program, has been used in a clinical operation. (FEL technology was first developed at Stanford University by John Madey, who now heads an FEL program at the University of Hawaii.)

"The operation shows that the FEL is an exceptional tool for exploring never-before-examined territories in surgery," said David Ernst, professor of physics and interim director of the Vanderbilt center, one of five FEL centers in the country supported by the Office of Naval Research. It is the only facility in the world that produces beams of infrared laser light powerful enough to use for surgery and is equipped to perform human operations.

Conventional lasers have been used in some forms of surgery for nearly three decades, but their use in neurosurgery has been limited due to the likelihood that they will damage area
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Contact: David F. Salisbury
d.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu
615-343-6803
Vanderbilt University
19-Dec-1999


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