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Warren S. Warren

If Warren S. Warren were not a chemist, he would be a stand-up comedian. But since he is "positive I would starve" in that profession, he says with a chortle, it's a good thing he stuck with chemistry and physics, and in particular, the use of lasers in medical imaging.

Warren S. Warren

"[I like to] push how far you can take medical imaging with laser pulses," he teases. Warren started off his career "halfway between chemistry and physics," acquiring one bachelor degree in each from Harvard, and a PhD in chemistry from UC Berkeley. As a postdoctoral associate at Caltech, he worked for Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail on optical coherent transient spectroscopy. He had been developing and utilizing various laser technologies while fashioning his career, mostly by figuring out how to control ultrafast laser pulses better. There are interesting applications in optical communications and laser chemistry, but about a decade ago, Warren realized that "the killer apps are clinical," he says. He decided to devote his scholarly activities to the junction between laser science, medicine, physics, chemistry, and imaging science.

His most noteworthy career experience was in the field of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to which he also dedicates research time and energy. "Almost two decades ago, my group started doing very simple experiments [relating to MRI] with results which seemed theoretically impossible," he recalls. "For two years, I was told by almost every prominent person in the field [that I was] ruining [my] career" by pursuing this experimental avenue. Only one person, Paul C. Lauterbur, who in 2003 received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discoveries concerning MRI, told Warren that his experiments were justified. Of course, the "real relief came when we had a theoretical explanation for what happened," he says. Today, his predictions of new pulse sequences "give us an entirely new method for contrast enhancement in clinical magnetic resonance imaging," and they also enhance functional MRI. He harbors no ill will towards his colleagues, reflecting that even when "everyone tells you that you had to be wrong and crazy," science is a glorious endeavor. In fact, "it's the human element of doing science that makes it very interesting."

Today, Warren's curriculum vitae reflects his diverse passions for physical chemistry, laser science, and medical imaging. Currently at Duke University, he is the James B. Duke Professor and Chair of the Chemistry Department, Professor of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering, Director of the Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging, and chair of the Division of Laser Science of the American Physical Society. As a laser science leader, he is best known for "sculpting" light pulses into specific shapes which enhance spectroscopy and imaging. In fact, the scientist and his research team, Warren2, have acquired "the highest field, high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance spectra ever taken," and their work "gives us new tools for measuring tissue structure on a distance scale that is 'invisible' to conventional MR methods."

They regularly exploit the similarities between MRI and optical imaging, two of the most important methods in the rapidly expanding field of molecular imaging. One significant application of Warren's laser work is in the field of dermatology. "The vast majority of dermatology uses technology of the 17th Century," he states. For example, physicians rarely use modern technological tools to determine if moles on a patient's skin are cancerous. Rather, "they eyeball it," says Warren. A biopsy is often the only method doctors employ to test a mole for disease.

But Warren's technological breakthrough allows for dermatologists to use lasers to examine the nature of skin ailments without the use of surgery. "Infrared light can propagate farther through tissue, and combinations of pulses can be used to get microscopic resolution deep in tissue without cutting" he explains. He says they can also make biopsy results more reliable, cutting unnecessary medical costs and saving lives. By observing the nature of light scattering throughout the skin tissue, physicians can diagnose Melanoma and other diseases.

Warren speculates that this type of laser innovation will be useful in other areas of medical science. In addition to providing significantly clearer images of the skin's surface and its depths, lasers will be more prevalent in endoscopes, which are used to take pictures of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Furthermore, because these lasers are so precise, they could be utilized by surgeons during and immediately following operations, to double check a tumor's edges for traces of any remaining cancer. A doctor could "shine light at the edges of what was cut out to see if there are tumor edges," Warren says.

But there's much more to the tale of the laser. "There's an incredible range of applications that are only beginning to be recognized," he says. "The first few decades [of laser science] were focused on the technology — you had to be an expert in the physics of the laser [to use one]. Now it's gotten to the point where...you can often buy the kind of laser [you want] off the shelf. This means that it's possible for non-laser experts to develop really cool laser applications." Warren points out that this is similar to what happened to the discipline of MRI — when first developed in the 1940s and 1950s, magnetic resonance devices could only be used by scientific experts. But "eventually they became so easy [to use] that you didn't need a PhD in spin physics to use one," he says.

The scientist has patents on his laser technologies and "is definitely interested in spinning these off" into products and possibly a company, he says. Meanwhile, he continues his laser artistry, never tiring of developing new techniques to sculpt light. "There's no challenge in finding difficult problems to solve" in this field, Warren adds. The key, he says, is finding problems with reasonable chances for solutions that people find important. Luckily, with Warren's expertise in and affection for the science of light pulses, and his disdain for a career in comedy, he is certain to smoke out the most interesting and useful laser solutions for society.
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