One year ago, electrical and computer engineering professor Chris Davis was making things disappear. Now, he’s using the same technology to help detect cancer or heart disease in DNA.
While concocting new theories of how to make things vanish is common in the scientific world, Davis said it is unusual that these ideas are put to work in a practical and tangible way.
Last year, Davis and his team completed his research on a technology that appears to allow light to go straight through a solid object, using a process known in the scientific community as “cloaking” — concealing objects by reflecting what they would otherwise be obscuring.
“There are 100 papers on the theory behind cloaking for every paper that has actual, experimental data, and that’s because the experiments are difficult,” Davis said. “We were the first ones to actually apply the theory and make a working cloak.”
The prototype, which is 10 micrometers in diameter — about a tenth of the diameter of a human hair — works by tricking the eye into thinking light is shining directly through an object, while it is actually traveling through a series of concentric circles surrounding it. Light bends through the circles and is released on the other side, making it appear as if they have moved in a straight line in empty space.
“We got a lot of attention when we first reported the news,” Davis said. “We know how to make things invisible, but we don’t have the materials needed to build large, three-dimensional cloaks. Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak is still very far away.”
A year later, graduate student Ehren Hwang, who works with Davis, is applying the technology to create biosensors that have the potential to help determine if certain patients are at high risk for genetic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes.
“We cloak certain regions to distinguish between detection of a target material, which could be a part of DNA or a certain set of genes, and illumination due to the environment,” Hwang said.
Although technologies already exist that allow scientists to draw similar conclusions, Hwang’s work would make the process of detection quicker, cheaper and more accurate.
The process provides researchers with a control group, which should decrease the number of false positives.
Being able to detect certain potentially fatal diseases and health conditions could enable doctors and patients to minimize their exposure to other factors that may lead to the onset of disease.
The study is still in its first stages but could eventually become one of the first practical applications of a phenomenon that is more often associated with magic than with science.
“Cloaking large objects is still science fiction,” Davis said. “Star Trek got it right. The Enterprise could still see enough small disturbances in space on their radar — enough to know that there was a cloaked ship out there.”