It is rare that one can predict the future, especially in the healthcare market. Foreseeing a future growth spike can be especially difficult. Often there are clues that dramatic growth will occur, however. A dead give away may be if scores of new competitors enter a market and the existing companies do not suffer. Another clue is the presence of a rich pool of untapped customers who could benefit from the products. Both of these factors are evident in biophotonics, the broad term for the application, modification, and detection of photons in cells, tissues, or organisms.
Generally used in medical imaging to achieve greater amplification and more precise localization of specific areas of a specimen, biophotonics is, at this time, limited to the research laboratory—mostly in pharmaceutical discovery and development, molecular biology research, clinical research, and histology/cytology research.
In these areas biophotonics has shown double-digit growth, and the number of competitors has increased fivefold. But given the needs of hospital labs for better and more expanded information it’s not hard to imagine biophotonic techniques crossing over to clinical diagnostics, with an exponential increase in the volume of procedures and subsequently revenues.
Basics of Biophotonics
Currently centered on microscopy and related technologies, biophotonics looks at biological functions at the cellular level or even smaller. In addition, new technologies are emerging that use electrophysiology and other probes for measuring biological functions. There are many different types of microscopy and associated technologies, all are essential to the application of biophotonics.
Optical Sectioning Microscopy. The classical way to study samples under a light microscope involves fixing a stain and preparing a thin slice for examination. If the area of interest is located in the interior of the slice, however, it could be obscured and out of focus. Techniques have been developed that enable whole-mount samples to be examined by optical sectioning, which minimizes or eliminates this out-of-focus interference.
Photon Limited Microscopy. Many optical visualization techniques applied to the study of living tissues must work at photon-limiting levels of signal. This is particularly the case for in vivo fluorescence studies. Because of the need to work at ultralow light levels, the development of advanced imaging detectors such as cooled, charge-coupled devices with high-photon detection efficiencies and microscopes with low-loss optics was required. In order to make the most effective use of such low-light level microscopes, advanced digital electronics are needed along with computer algorithms to enhance photon-limited images.
Fluorescent Probes in Biological Research. Fluorescence microscopy is one of the most widely used microscopy techniques that enables the molecular composition of the structures being observed to be identified using fluorescently labeled probes with high chemical specificity. This technique is now established as one of the standard weapons in the molecular biologist’s armory. Its use, however, is confined primarily to studies of fixed specimens because of the difficulties of introducing antibody complexes into living specimens.
Time-Resolved Fluorescence Spectroscopy (TRFS). This technique is ideal for studying fluorescent molecules. It measures the distribution of time between the electronic excitation of a fluorophore and the radiative decay of the electron from the excited stated producing an emitted photon. Several factors can modify the lifetime of fluorescence.
Fluorescence Lifetime Imaging Microscopy (FLIM). In this methodology, fluorescence lifetimes are measured at each pixel and displayed as contrast. FLIM combines the advantages of lifetime spectroscopy with fluorescence microscopy by revealing the spatial distribution of a fluorescent molecule together with information about its microenvironment. This extra dimension can be used to discriminate among multiple labels on the basis of lifetime as well as spectra.
Caged Bioactive Probes. A wide range of bioactive molecules—such as second messengers or neurotransmitters—is now available with conjugated caging groups. These caging groups render the molecule inert until the cage is opened by photolysis, usually achieved by the localized application of an intense source of UV light. Using this technique, it is possible to precisely control, in space and time, the application of an experimentally applied signal molecule.
The market for biophotonics technology and products is large and growing rapidly. Actual estimates are based on the larger photonics and optoelectronics markets, as many of these products have crossover uses in the biomedical field. Also, since biophotonics is largely used in medical imaging, a good portion of the potential for growth in the market is being fueled by growth in the imaging markets.
According to Kalorama Information’s estimates, the global potential market for biophotonics stands at $19 billion this year and by 2012 will “hockey stick reach” $190 billion by 2018. The U.S. market represents a good chunk of this market, accounting for about $16 billion this year.
The number of clinical and biological applications of biophotonics is expanding rapidly, leading to unprecedented growth.
Growth is driven in large part by finding new applications or re-engineering existing technologies, and it is therefore not dependent on the slow development of enabling technologies. Biophotonics technology will augment and replace many current technologies in research, in vitro diagnostics, imaging, and even therapeutics. The speed and performance of biophotonics approaches in these fields is expected to induce rapid replacement of existing products, as well as continuous technology upgrades once advanced biophotonics systems become available.
Moreover, the market base is large, consisting of research labs in institutes, universities, and hospitals. Clinical laboratories, more cost-conscious and less likely to adapt new technologies in any field these days, are expected to follow. The application of biophotonics in clinical labs may initially be limited because the technology provides such detailed and unique data that its utility is not yet clearly apparent and established. Eventually, biophotonics will provide the pathway for such clinically useful activities as personalized medicine.
As the biophotonics market grows, the number of competitors is increasing rapidly, apparently with little stress on the industry. Only two years ago, the number of companies focusing specifically on biophotonics was limited, but that figure has increased at least fivefold in recent years and is still growing.
There are literally hundreds of companies involved in the photonics business and virtually all of them have products that can be used in biophotonics. The vast majority of these are small companies that are lighter on their feet and better suited for an industry with such a fast-paced technology. With low barriers to entry, larger companies will face fierce competition from smaller businesses, which will jump at the opportunity to meet the vast need for new technologies and applications in biophotonics. The large and expanding market guarantees that there will be strong interest in the field going forward.