Lead researcher Aristide Dogariu, an optical scientist at the College of Optics and Photonics, and Kiminobu Sugaya, a stem cell researcher at the College of Medicine's Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences have revealed that their work could have longterm implications such as stimulating and controlling tissue regeneration for cleaner wound healing.
There is also a possibility of altering the shapes of cells and preventing malignant tumours from spreading throughout the body.
The research team explored the use of a gentler light energy. It showed for the first time that optically induced torques can affect components within cells that drive their motility - their ability to move spontaneously -- and change the orientation of cells within cultures.
Dogariu and Sugaya began exploring the idea of moving an entire cell by focusing on its inner mechanisms. Inside the cells there are slender rods made up of a protein called actin.
"Actin rods are constantly vibrating, causing the cells to move sporadically" Sugaya said.
The researchers demonstrated that low-intensity polarized light can guide the rods' Brownian motion to ever-so-slowly line up and move in the desired direction.
"Stronger light would simply kill them. We wanted to gently help the cells do their job the way they know how to do it," Dogariu added.
A time-lapse video shows that after more than two hours of exposure to light with specific characteristics, a group of stem cells migrates from a seemingly random mix of shapes, movement and sizes to a uniform lineup.
The results were presented at the 2009 Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics/International Quantum Electronics Conference.