When the American subsidiary of Italian defense giant Leonardo decided to acquire a San Diego-based tech startup called Daylight Solutions in 2017, it didn’t provide many details explaining why. Daylight Solutions was involved in developing applications for quantum cascade lasers. The press release disclosing the transaction mentioned potential “aircraft survivability products and medical and industrial applications, such as imaging for cancer diagnostics and pharmaceutical chemical detection.”
Few people outside the companies involved paid attention. Two years later, though, the logic of the transaction is becoming abundantly clear. DRS Daylight Solutions, as it is now called, has developed a microscope based on its quantum cascade laser technology that will revolutionize cancer diagnoses by analyzing tissue samples in minutes rather than days or weeks. The results aren’t just much faster than traditional biopsy techniques, they are 95-99% reliable and easily interpreted by clinicians.
It’s an incredible breakthrough in a field that hasn’t changed much in many years, combining tunable infrared lasers, sophisticated optics, desktop computers and algorithms to enable early detection of diverse cancers and advance the delivery of precision (individually-tailored) medicine. But why would one of the world’s biggest military contractors want to buy into new biomedical technology?
It turns out that the same technology DRS Daylight Solutions uses in its Spero microscope can also be used to defeat heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles, analyze wounds, and detect pathogens. In fact, it has so many potential civilian and military applications that Leonardo’s DRS unit, within which Daylight Solutions is now located, has barely begun to identify all the markets where opportunities might materialize. The one key point company executives make is that whether the technology is used in a civilian or military setting, its core value lies in saving lives.
Different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum have radically different properties and uses. The mid-infrared region where the Spero telescope’s quantum cascade laser operates is especially useful in identifying molecules by their vibrational “fingerprints.” WIKIPEDIA
I probably wouldn’t know about any of this if DRS were not a consulting client, but the story of the Spero microscope is so unusual that I just had to write it up. What DRS Daylight Solutions has developed is a classic example of “dual-use” technology, meaning innovation that cuts across traditional boundaries to deliver benefits in a wide array of seemingly unconnected areas. The versatility of the Spero microscope bespeaks the underlying unity of the electromagnetic spectrum, which has been sliced and diced since Edison to fashion all sorts of inventions, but still contains vast potential for further breakthroughs.
I can’t say much about how quantum cascade lasers might be applied to aircraft survivability against heat-seeking missiles because the research is sensitive, so suffice it to say that federal agencies are interested. But being able to accurately analyze wounds on the battlefield is a constant concern of military medicine, and the technology used in the Spero microscope is easily transportable to combat settings. As for detecting pathogens such as smallpox, DRS Daylight executives say their technology can be mounted on drones or even carried by individual soldiers for detecting a range of deadly agents that might be used in what once was called “germ warfare.”
So how does the technology work? The basic idea is that every molecule vibrates in a distinct way that causes it to absorb light when it is exposed to electromagnetic radiation operating at the same frequency. Because different types of molecules have unique signatures or “fingerprints,” it is possible to identify which are present by imaging a tissue sample with a range of energy wavelengths in the mid-infrared portion of the spectrum. The colors that get absorbed tell the story of what molecules are in the sample – including, for example, whether they are cancer cells.
The tunable laser in a Spero microscope can generate 500 precise wavelengths (or frequencies) at very high levels of brightness to scan a sample, and the results are then merged into a composite image that reveals the presence (or absence) of cancer cells. Like other chemicals and compounds, every type of cancer cell has a unique fingerprint that the microscope can tag using desktop computing resources so pathologists can provide a diagnosis. Unlike in other methods used to conduct biopsies, there is no need to stain samples in a way that might destroy them, there is no need for cryogenic cooling of cumbersome equipment, there is no need for long waits before results are available, and there is no need to apply subjective judgment in interpreting those results. The process is fast and accurate.
Before Daylight Solutions perfected its technology, semiconductor lasers covering the entire spectrum of relevant mid-infrared wavelengths were not available. But because the quantum cascade laser in the Spero microscope is continuously tunable, it can detect pretty much any color that might signal the presence of cancer cells. Of course, it is not color in the visible light sense because infrared energy is invisible to the human eye, but for the purposes of detection and analysis it is just as revealing. With a Spero microscope most of the time, expense and uncertainty of cancer diagnoses is eliminated. Cancers can be detected early and precisely, materially improving the prospects for patient survival and recovery. That presumably is why the microscope’s name is derived from the Latin word for “hope.”
Taking digital spectroscopy to the unprecedented level of precision exhibited by the Spero microscope opens a world of opportunities beyond cancer diagnoses. Pharmaceuticals and other complex chemical compounds can be precisely dissected, aerosols and liquids can be analyzed, industrial processes can be monitored and, oh by the way, heat-seeking warheads can be defeated. It is nearly inevitable that the technology DRS Daylight Solutions has developed will change the way in which many vital processes are currently performed, contributing to the technological progress that is transforming every facet of our civilization.