Medical Imaging Pioneers Fujimoto, Swanson & Huber Named 2017 EPO European Inventor Award Finalists

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M.I.T. Engineers & German Physicist Nominated for Inventing Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), Improving Diagnosis of Eye Disease, Cancer and Heart Disease

Thanks to this team, doctors can now create real-time images of human tissue for early detection of cancer, glaucoma and other ailments.

The European Patent Office (EPO) today announced that the team of U.S. Engineers James G. Fujimoto and Eric A. Swanson, and German Physicist Robert Huber, have been named finalists for the European Inventor Award 2017 in the category of “Non-European countries.” The winners of the 12th edition of the EPO’s annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony held on June 15th at the Arsenale di Venezia in Venice, Italy.

Ever since the discovery of X-rays by German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen in 1895 doctors have been able to "look inside" the human body for diagnostic purposes. But despite newer imaging methods, such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), certain segments of human anatomy remained opaque. Soft tissue, especially minuscule blood vessels in the human eye and heart, proved nearly impossible to visualize. This has changed thanks to an entirely new category of medical imaging created by US engineers James G. Fujimoto and Eric A. Swanson together with German physicist Robert Huber. Optical coherence tomography (OCT) relies on "echoes" of light beams to render soft tissues visible in real time and in microscopic detail. Premiered as a clinical prototype in 1993, OCT is now used in around 30 million procedures per year around the world.

"Thanks to this team, doctors can now create real-time images of human tissue for early detection of cancer, glaucoma and other ailments,” said EPO President Benoît Battistelli, announcing the European Inventor Award 2017 finalists. “The optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging method is an impressive example of successful multidisciplinary collaboration and innovation that has helped millions of patients.”

Fujimoto and Swanson began developing OCT technology as a method to diagnose glaucoma, a potentially blinding eye disease, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston in 1990. Filing more than 50 patents in the process, they made their breakthrough by directing laser light at soft body tissue and measuring the the time delay of the light beams (“echo”). Initial OCT devices for ophthalmology were rolled out to clinics in 1996, the first cardiovascular OCT scanner followed in 2004, dermatological OCT in 2010, and gastrointestinal in 2013. Key technologies behind cardiovascular OCT and lasers enabling an imaging speed that is up to a hundred times faster came from German physicist Robert Huber, who joined Fujimoto's MIT group as postdoctoral research fellow from 2003 to 2005.


OCT solves a long-standing problem in medical imaging. Because images of soft tissue proved difficult to capture, doctors often had to perform invasive biopsies to obtain tissue samples for analysis. This is not an option for sensitive organs such as the human eye. Now, however, OCT can perform an "optical biopsy" without surgery. Similar to the working principle behind ultrasound – but with light beams instead of sound waves – the new technology delivers detailed images of the human retina, heart and other organs with unprecedented detail. "Ultra-fast pulsed infrared laser light penetrates up to three millimeters of opaque tissue. We can generate cross-sectional images of tissues in extremely high resolution. They can be seen in real time without the need of an injected agent," says Fujimoto, while pointing out that recent OCT applications can deliver "live" 3D images during surgery. “OCT is a method that measures from what depth any light reflections have come. Measuring the transit time of the light enables a 3D image to be generated,” explains Huber.


Rolled out to clinical practice in 1996, OCT quickly became a standard technique for eye exams. "OCT is one of the most commonly-used imaging procedures in ophthalmology. About 30 million OCT scans are performed every year worldwide. That’s one every few seconds," says Swanson. By detecting serious eye diseases such as glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration in early, still treatable stages, the technology has saved the eyesight of countless people. This achievement is even more remarkable considering that the team consists of engineers and a physicist, not medical professionals. "I am not a doctor, I am not on the front line of helping people, but even as engineer it is possible to do things that have a positive impact," says Fujimoto. There are also direct financial implications. "The economic impact of OCT has been exceptional. Today the system market is approaching a billion dollars a year. There are over 16,000 high-quality jobs and it's saved billions of dollars in unnecessary healthcare expenditure," says Swanson.


OCT was greeted as a "transformative medical technology" by the Association of Research and Vision, when Carl Zeiss – a market leader – released the first clinical ophthalmic OCT instrument in 1996. While numerous companies have commercialized OCT technology, the three inventors have launched their own successful start-up companies. The list includes the world's first OCT company, Advanced Ophthalmic Diagnostics, set up in 1992, as well as LightLab Imaging in 1998 (both founded by Fujimoto and Swanson), and Optores GmbH in 2013 (founded by Huber).

OCT has single-handedly etched out a new market segment in medical technologies. It created revenues of about EUR 4.77 billion (USD 5.2 billion) between 1996 and 2016. Third-party analysts at BioOpticsWorld reported global revenues from OCT systems of EUR 688 million (USD 750 million) in 2015 in a marketplace teeming with new activity.


Despite their entrepreneurial success, all three inventors continue to advance the state of the art in OCT technology. Fujimoto earned his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT in 1984 and still teaches at his alma mater. He is listed as inventor or co-inventor on 15 patent families worldwide, representing the first and most fundamental patents for the OCT technology. Fujimoto's contributions have been honored with international awards such as the Carl Zeiss Research Award (2011), the António Champalimaud Vision Award (2012), IEEE Photonics Award (2014), the Optical Society's Frederic Ives Medal (2015) and the National Academy of Engineering Russ Prize (2017).

As a professor at MIT, Fujimoto is a principal investigator in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) and Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. He mentors many promising young scientists, some of whom have even gone on to create their own OCT start-ups. As words of encouragement, Fujimoto shared: "Young professionals in science can make these incredible contributions through their engineering, not only to research but to society overall."

Swanson earned his Masters of Science in electrical engineering from MIT in 1984. Co-author of 81 journal articles, 142 conference presentations, and over 40 patents, he has been honored with numerous awards, including the Rank Prize in optoelectronics (2002), António Champalimaud Vision Award (2012) and the National Academy of Engineering Russ Prize (2017).

Having earned his PhD at the Faculty of Physics of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (LMU) in 2002, Huber is currently developing an ultra-fast version of OCT with his company, Optores GmbH. It features Fourier domain mode locking (FDML), a technique that increases imaging speeds up to 100 times. The author of 100 peer-reviewed publications, Huber has been honored with the German Chemical Society's Albert-Weller-Preis (2003), the Rudolf-Kaiser Preis (2008) and the Klung-Wilhelmy-Weberbank Preis (2013).


Video and photo material

Read more about the inventors

View the patent: EP0883793, EP0981733, EP1839375


Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is part of a sensitive class of inventions when it comes to patenting law. The European Patent Convention explicitly excludes from patentability methods for surgery, therapy or diagnosis administered on the human (or animal) body. However, a medical apparatus, product or device that is used for such a purpose may well be protected by a patent. For this reason, OCT is covered by several patents, and is to be considered in the same light as for instance the eye surgery technology patented by German inventor Josef Bille, winner of the 2012 European Inventor Award. Read more about patents on medical technologies.

About the European Inventor Award

About the European Patent Office (EPO)

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