The European Patent Office (EPO) has recognized American engineers James G. Fujimoto and Eric A. Swanson and German physicist Robert Huber with the 2017 European Inventor Award for their development of Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT). The team was distinguished in the Non-EPO Countries category, one of five categories for the annual award.
Fujimoto is the Elihu Thomson Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and principal investigator in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE). He is also an adjunct professor of ophthalmology at Tufts University School of Medicine. He joined the MIT faculty in 1985 after receiving SB, SM, and PhD degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the Institute. He is listed as inventor or co-inventor on 15 patent families and has contributed to more than 450 journal articles and nine books.
Swanson, who received an SM degree in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT EECS, has co-founded several startups. He worked at MIT Lincoln Laboratory for 16 years, where he collaborated in the discovery and advancement of OCT, and worked on optical networks and space communication. He holds more than 40 patents and is the co-author of 81 journal articles.
Huber is a professor at the Institute for Biomedical Optics at the University of Lübeck, Germany. He co-founded the Munich-based company Optores GmbH in 2013 to develop an ultra-fast version of OCT. He is the author of 100 peer-reviewed publications and is listed as an inventor on seven European patent applications.
All three have won numerous international awards for their work.
OCT is the first technology to deliver real-time images of human tissue at microscopic clarity without the need for invasive probing or surgical biopsies. It has become a world standard and is used in millions of exams per year, enabling early detection of serious eye diseases such as glaucoma, but also cancer and heart disease.
“Thanks to this team, doctors can now look at living tissue in new ways to diagnose eye disease, cancer, and other serious illnesses faster and more accurately,” said EPO President Benoît Battistelli. “OCT procedures have led to improved understanding of diseases, new treatments and therapeutic tools, as well as improved quality of life for millions of patients. Their story is also an impressive example of how patented inventions can help create and drive an entire business segment."
The European Inventor Award, now in its 12th year, is presented annually by the EPO to distinguish outstanding inventors from Europe and around the world who have made an exceptional contribution to social development, technological progress and economic growth. The winners were chosen by an independent international jury from a pool of more than 450 individuals and teams of inventors put forward for this year's award.
Laser-Focused on Innovation
OCT works on a principle similar to ultrasound, except that it measures the "echo" time delay of light beams instead of sound waves. Launched in 1993 as a clinical prototype, OCT revolutionized the standard of care in ophthalmology and was welcomed as a transformative medical technology. The multidisciplinary team’s invention, for which they filed more than 50 patents during development, has also had a major economic impact. "Today, the [OCT] market is approaching $1 billion per year. There are over 16,000 high-quality jobs, and it's saved billions of dollars in unnecessary health-care expenditure," Swanson says. With the help of patents, numerous European companies, such as Carl Zeiss, Heidelberg Engineering and Michelson Diagnostics have commercialized OCT technology and become major players in the industry.
All three inventors have leveraged their intellectual property into successful businesses, including the world's first OCT companies, Advanced Ophthalmic Diagnostics (acquired by Carl Zeiss Meditec) and LightLab Imaging (now owned by Abbott) — both of which were co-founded by Fujimoto and Swanson — and Germany-based Optores GmbH (co-founded by Huber). “Today, around 50 companies develop OCT systems,” Huber notes. "Approximately 75 percent of them originated as start-ups.”
The inventors continue to advance OCT. Fujimoto trains a new generation of OCT engineers as principal investigators in both EECS and RLE. Swanson serves in technical roles at OCT companies, while Huber is creating ultra-fast lasers at the University of Lübeck.
What originally started as a diagnostic tool for eye diseases — with about 30 million scans now performed worldwide every year — has since brought high resolution to several other medical fields, including cardiology, endoscopy, surgical guidance, and dermatology, with more than 50,000 systems installed worldwide. OCT's transformative impact is even more significant considering that none of the three award-winning inventors is a medical professionals. "I am not a doctor; I am not on the front line of helping people. But even as an engineer it is possible to do things that have a positive impact," Fujimoto notes.
The EPO has provided additional information on the three inventors and their work, including: