When the three IBM researchers who invented the technology that underlies LASIK and PRK refractive surgery made their breakthrough discovery in 1981, scientists in the physical sciences department at the Thomas J. Watson Sr. Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., were considered to be “islands of expertise.” Their job was to labor away in their individual labs on fundamental advances in their specialties. But, in practice, things worked out differently. And that helps explain how a physicist, a chemist and a materials scientist made one of the most important discoveries ever for the practice of refractive eye surgery.
Today, interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the pillars of IBM’s approach to advancing science and technology. And, in the coming years, as scientific fields collide with increasing frequency, the ability of scientists to build bridges between their domains will likely be one of the core competencies for research organizations–whether corporate, governmental or academic.
The three IBM Research scientists showed how it’s done. For their efforts, James Wynne, the physicist; Rangaswamy Srinivasan, the chemist; and Samuel Blum, the materials scientist, will be honored at the White House today when President Obama presents the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. (Unfortunately, Blum died a few weeks ago. Srinivasan is no longer at IBM.) This is just the most recent of many honors the three men have received over the years, but for Wynne the greatest satisfaction lies closer to home. “The best thing for me is that I invented something that corrected my own son’s eyesight,” he says.
The three men weren’t even thinking about eye surgery when they they began the work that led to their invention. They were simply looking for new things made possible by lasers. Scientists elsewhere had developed a new device, the excimer laser, which IBM Research had just acquired. Srinivasan and a co-worker discovered they could etch plastics (i.e. polymers) with this laser. Polymers share certain chemical features with skin and other human and animal tissue. Srinivasan and Wynn speculated about using the device on human tissue where something medical and surgical could be done with it. Wynne was aware that when we get paper cuts on our fingers–thin and precise incisions–they would heal without forming scar tissue. Perhaps they could use a laser in the same way, making a precise cut without causing collateral damage. “It was a wild guess, but it worked,” he says.
Their wild idea became a reality a few weeks later. While they felt comfortable trying out lasers on their hair and fingernails, none of them could muster the courage to zap their own skin. The breakthrough came when Srinivasan brought the carcass of his family’s Thanksgiving turkey into the lab on November 27, 1981. There, he etched precise patterns in the cartilage.
After the three IBMers refined their techniques and applied for a patent a New York opthamologist, Stephen Trokel, learned of their work and realized how important the technology could be for eye surgery. The cornea could be reshaped with a laser–improving vision for countless people with nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. In the summer of 1983, Trokel did exploratory research on the idea with Srinivasan and IBMer Bodil Braren, and, late in 1983, they published a paper on the procedure in a major ophthalmology journal. This paper awakened the ophthalmology community to the potential of their new approach to laser refractive surgery. After many years of further research and clinical trials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a commercial laser refractive surgery system in 1995. Since then, more than 25 million people worldwide have benefited from LASIK and PRK, many of them achieving “eagle-eye” vision–better than 20/20 vision acuity.
Wynne has gone on to play a number of roles at IBM Research. Today, his “day job” includes running an outreach program for getting school kids interested in science and math. But, even though he’s almost 70 years old, he believes he has one more major invention in him. His goal is to develop a concept for using lasers to remove necrotic skin lesions, such as burn eschar, without harming viable skin adjacent and underneath. He calls the technology a “smart scalpel.” He’s looking for a medical organization to collaborate with him on the project–another example of where cross-disciplinary research could lead to a major breakthrough that could help millions of people. “That’s my passion,” Wynne says, “to prove that lasers could produce another paradigm shift in medicine.”