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Dr. Lluís Torner

director of the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO)

Doctor Lluís Torner has played a key role in creating ICFO and making it a global benchmark. These efforts have been recognized this year by the prestigious Optical Society of America. He holds a PhD in physical sciences from the UPC, maintains close links with the university as a tenured professor, presides over the Catalan Association of Research Bodies and is a member of the Scientific Committee at the International Center for Scientific Debate.

Photonics is a transversal technology —like biotechnology, nanotechnology, nanoelectronics and new materials— that the European Union has recognized as one of the keys to the economic future of the continent. There are very few research centers devoted exclusively to this field, and Catalonia leads the way thanks to the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO).

ICFO deals with various branches of photonics, particularly its applications in biology and medicine, nanotechnology, energy, information technology, safety and sensors. Their on-going dedication to young talent and active work in developing business collaborations are noteworthy.

The first stone of a new building that will enlarge the facility they have used at the Mediterranean Technology Park in Castelldefels since 2002 was laid last March.

In a few words, how do you define the work being done at ICFO?

We are a dynamic, flexible body made up of international researchers. We promote frontier research and technology development and we enjoy working with any industries and hospitals that can benefit from our expertise. We seek out maximum quality in everything we do and are flexible in adapting to the needs of our collaborators. We aim to be a global benchmark in our field.

Light is useful for healthcare. For example, in biophotonics we understand you work with oncologists to treat specific types of cancer using light. Is this one of the most hoped for breakthroughs?

On one hand, we are working to find systems to detect the disease in the very early stages, using imaging techniques or ultrasensitive biochemical detectors. On the other, research is being done on using photonic techniques for new non-invasive photodynamic therapies to destroy cancer cells. 

And in neurology and neurosciences —which were discussed at the second Light for Health congress organized by ICFO with collaboration from the Cellex Foundation and the International Center for Scientific Debate last May— what research is being done?

We have several programs. We are working, for example, on laser nanosurgery techniques applied to studying neuronal regeneration and on various advanced optical imaging techniques. Some of these techniques provide super-resolution images that allow us to monitor structural and biochemical processes inside individual in vivo cells, at a scale that was previously unimaginable. Other techniques allow us to obtain quantitative information on parameters like oxygen concentration and flow or neuronal activity, non-invasively.

You are a defender of frontier science. Should this be carried out by seasoned researchers or those just starting out (ICFO has many doctoral students)?

We promote frontier research as one essential part of the recipe in order for a society to be innovative and economically solid in the era we live in. The frontier can be of knowledge, technology, concepts, organization, etc. The important thing is that it leads to global innovations. Naturally, this recipe has many other ingredients. It’s like making a good paella: you need half a dozen ingredients, starting with fire, water and a good pan to make the rice.

Some people speak of two types of scientific research: that with middle-term applications and that with applications in the long term (more ambitious). What do you think about this with regards to the BioRegion of Catalonia?

What counts is that research being done is new and produces relevant results, either to advance knowledge on how things work or on how the tools we have to manipulate them work, or how to make these tools more affordable or easier to use… Middle-term and short-term research can also be highly ambitious; we only have to look at examples from industrial or clinical research being carried out. In terms of generating wealth, the key factor is that companies seek support from research centers and universities in their technological innovation processes. The commercial value of results from the most cutting-edge research around the world can be large or small, but the commercial value of their knowledge and that of their collaborators is huge. Companies must take advantage of this.

Is the scientific debate promoted by the International Center for Scientific Debate one of the initiatives that will help generate a new knowledge-based economic model in our country?

Anything that spreads knowledge, that brings together people with different training and activities, anything that fosters a multidisciplinary approach, is a means to this end. The challenges currently facing humanity are complex and, furthermore, current technological breakthroughs are highly specialized. A multidisciplinary approach is ever more important to finding solutions. Look at many breakthroughs in nanomedicine: they are often a mix of biochemistry, electronics, photonics, micromechanics, microfluidics, materials, etc.

Research funded by private bodies, public/private associations, social patronage... Which funding model should be used for growth?

One of the key breakthroughs in research in Catalonia over the past decade has been the move from a system where it was possible to have high quality individual researchers towards a system with entire institutions of excellence. The difference in terms of competitiveness and the capacity to carry out and adapt research, be it scientific, technological or transfer, is notable. In this way, the most appropriate model is that in which institutions have a solid, stable funding foundation, through which they can attract resources through competitive tenders, which together allows them to forge alliances with industries to pursue common aims. Patronage is important for very special projects. For example, at ICFO we have been lucky that the Barcelona Cellex Foundation noticed us and has helped us on projects that, without their support, would have been impossible to carry out. We are currently working on a project called NEST geared towards young talent, which is extremely important.

ICFO has been chosen, on a European level, as the location of the Nikon Center of Excellence in Storm. Tell us more about this.

One of the most recent incorporations to ICFO, through the NEST program, is Doctor Melike Lakadamyali from the University of Harvard. The group she worked with at Harvard discovered a new technology, called STORM, which is now used in a number of laboratories around the world. This is a technique that allows us to obtain super-high resolution images and, thus, create three-dimensional maps of neuronal connections, among other applications. The multinational corporation Nikon Instruments markets this technology through licensing agreements with Harvard.

The incorporation of Doctor Lakadamyali at ICFO, in addition to our super-resolution laboratories and our reputation for collaborating with industry, has led Nikon to select our center for a pioneering alliance, establishing their STORM center of excellence here. The center allows us access to top-notch Nikon equipment, which is available to the whole BioRegion of Catalonia community, and lets us take advantage of the enormous potential this technology offers to resolve biomedical problems.

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