James Fujimoto’s lab is celebrated for leading the development of optical coherence tomography (OCT), a medical imaging technology that is analogous to ultrasound, except that it uses echoes of light to achieve ultrahigh resolution. It also doesn’t require contact with the tissue being imaged, which makes OCT especially useful for imaging the retina. Today the technology is widely used in ophthalmology: tens of millions of imaging procedures are performed each year.
Fujimoto is the Elihu Thomson Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and runs the Biomedical Optical Imaging and Biophotonics Group in the Research Laboratory for Electronics. He and his collaborators were recently co-recipients of the Champalimaud Vision Award, given for major breakthroughs in the alleviation of visual impairment and blindness.
Twenty-five years ago, Fujimoto’s lab was working with ultrafast lasers, a key technology in physical sciences. Clinicians from Harvard Medical School approached Fujimoto with the idea of applying this technology to ophthalmology. David Huang, then a Harvard/MIT MD-PhD candidate in Fujimoto’s lab, developed the concept for OCT during this collaboration.
For Fujimoto, running a successful lab is a matter of perspective—other people’s perspectives. He is quick to deflect attention and credit his many collaborators. For him, building a diverse team is a prerequisite for conducting successful biomedical research.
“To develop a technology or procedure that has an impact on patient care fundamentally requires a multidisciplinary team of people,” he says. So Fujimoto turned to Eric Swanson, then a satellite communications expert at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, to help develop technology that could be used in the clinic. Other key collaborators were doctors Carmen Puliafito, then the director of the New England Eye Center, and Joel Schuman, a glaucoma specialist. Puliafito and Schuman performed clinical studies that demonstrated the efficacy of the technology.
The importance of outside perspectives hit home for Fujimoto when he was in high school. He’d developed an interest in electronics at a very early age and helped with his father’s electrical contracting business. His parents were eager for him to go to college, since they did not have the opportunity themselves. They had been relocated to Chicago from California after their lives had been uprooted by the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Given their experience, it didn’t occur to them to let Fujimoto go to school out of state. It was only at the urging of a family friend, one of the few people they knew who had a university education, that his parents allowed him to apply to MIT.
The work in Fujimoto’s lab spans specialties ranging from endoscopy to pathology, and exemplifies the type of research mit is known for, research that crosses disciplinary and organizational boundaries. His overarching goal, he says, is technology translation: to develop technologies that go beyond the laboratory and improve patient care. This requires close collaboration with clinicians and the business community.
“If we cannot create a team that transcends our individual limits of vision,” Fujimoto says, “then how can we have a positive impact in a field as complex as medicine?”