UT Inventor of the Year Pioneers Biomedical Techniques
By Caroline Khoury
For Reporting Texas
Thomas Milner has made a career of perfecting the therapeutic and diagnostic use of lasers, and by all accounts he’s done a good job of it. His inventions include advanced techniques for everything from the removal of birthmarks and tattoos to diagnosing diseases of the human eye and heart.
Small wonder, then, that Milner, a professor of engineering in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, was named UT Inventor of the Year in November.
According to Dan Sharp, associate vice president of research and director of the Office of Technology Commercialization, the award is based on the “significance and novelty of a scientific discovery coupled with the commercial potential of the discovery.”
One example of Milner’s flair for innovation is his work with optical coherence tomography. First developed in 1991, OCT has been mainly used for diagnosing early-stage glaucoma. Milner has his eye on developing its potential for seeing inside coronary arteries to detect early signs of heart disease.
“We’re still working on what you can do with the images,” said Milner, 54. “Right now, it is just used to size stents and go back and view those stents later. But most of the developments for cardiology are yet to come.”
From the beginning, Milner seemed suited for a life of invention, even if he couldn’t see it clearly himself. “In high school, I remember my teacher told me she saw me being an inventor, which at the time seemed like a crazy idea,” Milner said.
Milner embarked on a comprehensive science education seemingly tailor-made for his current work. After studying mathematics and physics at the Colorado School of Mines, he focused on optics in graduate school and took elective classes in biology. It wasn’t until he went to work at the Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine, in March 1992 that Milner began working with biomedical optics.
“Working with physicians and realizing the needs that the patients have and coming up with ways to meet those needs is pretty much my motivation,” Milner said. “My motivation for biomedical was that I wanted my work to help people.”
Milner started teaching and inventing at UT in 1998. He now heads a team of three doctoral students, two research associates and one research engineer in his own lab, the Biomedical Engineering Laser Laboratory.
In 2005, he co-founded CardioSpectra Inc. to develop and manufacture catheter imaging equipment to examine coronary arteries. In 2007, the company was sold to Volcano Corp., a cardiovascular intervention company, for $25 million, plus some future payments based on performance. The state, which had given CardioSpectra a $1.35 million Emergency Technology Fund grant in 2006, received $1.9 million from the sale, plus a portion of future payments.
Of Milner’s 35 method and apparatus patents, one of the most noteworthy involves a recent patent addition for a cooling technique that improves the effectiveness of laser treatment in patients with darker skin.
“The original purpose was to be able to treat patients with darker skin pigments and to be able to provide higher laser doses onto the skin,” Milner said. While the laser is directed at the skin, a cooling refrigerant is also released that eliminates the burning sensation for the patient. This is beneficial for patients with darker skin because a higher laser dosage is required to penetrate the pigment.
The cooling technique makes the treatment virtually painless while allowing the laser to get closer to the skin. The University of California, which holds the patent on the technique, granted a license to Candela Laser Corp. to develop the technology.
Milner “has a truly exceptional talent for innovation through basic science, seeing connections and solutions to complex problems, which lead to specific, testable hypotheses,” said Dr. J. Stuart Nelson, medical director at the Beckman Laser Institute and professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at U.C. Irvine.
Milner and Nelson conducted research together while Milner was at Beckman, from 1992 to 1997, and are still involved in some projects together. Said Nelson: “He has an intuitive ability to make the tradeoffs in the design and operation of complex experimental systems that enable him to obtain important and interesting results.”
Improving techniques for detecting glaucoma is one such area. Bingqing Wang, a doctoral student in Milner’s lab, said the current method for detecting the disease, the visual field exam, cannot detect it until 40 percent of the axons, or nerve fibers, in the retina are damaged beyond repair.
“The novel medical instruments invented by Dr. Milner have the potential to detect a glaucoma suspect at a much earlier stage so that most axons in the patient’s retina can be preserved after proper treatment,” Wang said. “This invention should save numerous eyes from blindness in the future.”
In their work on cardiovascular imaging, Milner and his team are developing techniques to detect microscopic, pimple-like structures that can burst, releasing plaque into the bloodstream and possibly causing heart attacks.
Tianyi Wang, a research associate assisting Milner in OCT development, said they are working on a hybrid of the technology and a technique called two-photon luminescence, which takes imaging to a new level.
“We can now detect both structure and composition of the plaque, but previously the OCT technique could only detect the structure of the plaque, not the composition,” Wang said. “So we actually add on one more optical contrast to this disease detection.”
Nelson said of Miller: “During his academic career, he has repeatedly developed several experimental biomedical devices from scratch, showing great originality, ingenuity, and excellent taste in his choice of equipment and designs. He has a strong desire to achieve, but it is tempered with a curiosity that frequently leads him into new insights that others would never have explored.”