Tenth time IBM has received nation’s most prestigious tech award; Experiment with Thanksgiving turkey leftovers led to vision correction procedure that has benefited more than 25 million people worldwide
President Obama will honor a team of three IBM (NYSE: IBM) scientists — James J. Wynne, Rangaswamy Srinivasan and Samuel Blum — with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the country’s most prestigious award given to leading innovators for technological achievement. They are receiving this award for their discovery of a new form of laser surgery, using an excimer laser that made modern LASIK and PRK refractive eye surgery possible.
President Obama will personally bestow the award to Drs. Wynne and Srinivasan at a special White House ceremony today. IBM has earned the National Medal of Technology and Innovation on nine other occasions.
“It is a huge honor to receive this award for our research more than thirty years after its initial discovery. This achievement is a reflection of IBM’s culture of innovation, to think far into the future, and a result of enabling different disciplines to come together to tackle real-world challenges with a broad domain of expertise,” said Dr. Wynne of IBM Research.
IBM’s transformational work in laser technology, by this team of scientists has shaped the course of surgical care. Well suited for delicate surgeries, the excimer laser replaced mechanical instruments such as the “cold steel” scalpel, which was not very precise, could leave the cornea permanently weakened and required a long recovery time.
The team of researchers, who each had different backgrounds that included laser physics, polymer photochemistry and materials science, embarked on their breakthrough adventure the day after Thanksgiving in 1981. What began as an experiment involving an excimer laser and some turkey leftovers led to the idea that this laser could be used in health and medicine, after they successfully irradiated a piece of turkey cartilage without any collateral damage to the surrounding tissue.
Using very short pulses of far ultraviolet light, the excimer laser cut a clean incision into the cartilage without any burning or charring. This ability to precisely cut into materials via ablation, rather than burning, was appealing to doctors and patients, as it left surrounding and underlying areas undamaged. As a result of publishing their research and giving a talk at a major laser conference in 1983, the IBM team caught the attention of the ophthalmology community, which helped advance this technology with further experimentation and trials.
Today, LASIK and PRK eye surgery are the most popular vision correction surgeries performed and have improved the vision of more than 25 million people worldwide. This type of modern surgery technology is one reason why the world has looked to the United States for leadership and best practices. James Wynne still works at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center, while Srinivasan and Blum have since retired, and Blum recently passed away on January 9(th), 2013. He was 92.
The White House ceremony will be webcast live starting from 2pm ET on Friday February 1, at http:/www.whitehouse.gov/live
In addition to the National Medal of Technology & Innovation, the team will also be awarded the 2013 Russ Prize of the National Academy of Engineering later this month, a prize that recognizes outstanding bioengineering achievements in widespread use that improves the human condition.
For more information, visit the IBM Icon of Progress on Excimer Laser Surgery at http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/excimer/