Superfast laser to help reveal secrets of UV damage

A new laser capable of hitting a sample a hundred thousand times a second is to help scientists understand how sunlight causes skin cancer.

The UK’s Central Laser Facility (CLF) at Harwell has received an £800,000 grant to build the “LIFEtime” instrument that it claims will have a unique illuminating ability, enabling researchers to study the internal workings of cells and proteins.

They say that as well revealing more about how UV light damages DNA in a way that leads to skin cancer, the laser could help them to better understand how medicines interact with the body at a molecular level and therefore develop better treatments.

The instrument will measure changes taking place within a sample when it is hit with the laser over different timescales, from the very fast initial reaction that occurs when a laser hits the sample (less than one million millionth of a second) to the ‘slower’ (milliseconds to seconds) follow-on reaction happening in the aftermath.

The laser will help reveal cell structures in greater detail than other instruments.

Prof Mike Towrie from the CLF said in a statement: ‘Sometimes experiments have to be repeated to gather information at both fast and slow timescales and there is always the risk of irreversible damage to precious or sensitive samples.

‘For something as delicate as a short DNA base or protein that is already being hit a hundred thousand times a second – which is necessary with some samples – you want to limit potential damage as much as possible.

‘LIFEtime will enable reactions across both fast and slow timescales to be measured at the same time, saving time, money and of course the precious samples.’

Describing the laser’s development process, he said: ’The LIFEtime instrument will be constructed from commercial lasers and components but will be brought together to specific Central Laser Facility design and uses the CLF’s own advanced instrument control, data acquisition and display systems.’

The grant was awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which is also funding a £1.5m super-resolution microscope that will be used to study almost any organelle – a sub-unit within a cell – to see how it is functioning.