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Esteemed biomedical researcher delivers third Russ Prize lecture

Anna Hartenbach and Colleen Carow | Sep 24, 2018
Hitzenberger stands behind a podium

Esteemed biomedical researcher delivers third Russ Prize lecture

Anna Hartenbach and Colleen Carow | Sep 24, 2018

Physicist Christoph K. Hitzenberger, one of five recipients of the National Academy of Engineering’s 2017 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, gave a Stocker Lecture at Ohio University last week about his role in developing optical coherence tomography (OCT), a revolutionary medical imaging technology that enables diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases and other medical conditions.

Hosted for the talk by the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, Hitzenberger was awarded the bioengineering prize along with fellow honorees the late Adolf F. Fercher of Vienna, Austria, who engaged him with the original research; Eric Swanson of Gloucester, Massachusetts; James G. Fujimoto of Cambridge, Massachusetts; and David Huang of Portland, Oregon.

Hitzenberger, vice chair of the Center for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering at the Medical University of Vienna, was hired as an assistant professor in 1987 by Fercher. They founded the biomedical optics research group together. Hitzenberger had been searching for a new field of research when a job post mentioning the application of lasers to eyes piqued his interest.

“I spent time at the library researching anything I could find. I was the only one prepared for the interview, so they gave me the job,” he said. “My advice is to prepare if you find something that interests you.”

Fercher asked his new protégée to continue the research that Fercher had begun.

“He didn’t exactly tell me how to do it,” Hitzenberger recalled with a smile. “He said I should figure out how it could work.”

Hitzenberger eventually developed the first system, technically known as the first heterodyne low coherence interferometry (LCI) system, for measuring certain intraocular distances.

“This finally convinced the Carl Zeiss company to create the first commercial ocular biometry system, based on LCI technology,” he said.  

The technology expanded to include OCT images and the first in vivo retinal OCT images of the human eye, ultimately enabling rapid 3D imaging and is now one of the most effective optical imaging and measurement technologies.

Russ College Dean Dennis Irwin shared that OCT has benefited thousands of people, including him.

“Tens of thousands of these OCT instruments are in use worldwide. The technology has completely changed retinal diagnostics in the last decade,” Irwin said. “As someone whose optic nerve is examined regularly since a viral infection, I’m especially interested in the technology that enabled my physician to determine the extent of damage to my eyesight.”

Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Doug Goetz, who brought a contingent of students to the talk, said they benefit from meeting highly accomplished professors who are presenting their life-long work.

“The fact that we have several Russ Prize winners this year emphasizes the importance of teamwork – it’s not one person in the lab; it’s several people working together to advance the technology,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that the Russes donated funds to recognize engineers worldwide and to provide this opportunity to our students.”

Hitzenberger, who is a fellow of the Optical Society and the International Society for Optics and Photonics, also received the Hoechst Foundation Award for Advancement of Medical Research in Austria. Editor in chief of the OSA journal, he has authored or coauthored 150 scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals, receiving nearly 20,000 citations. He earned his Ph.D. in physics and mathematics in 1983 and his habilitation in medical physics in 1993.

The $500,000 biennial Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize, which recognizes a bioengineering achievement in widespread use that significantly improves the human condition, was created by Ohio University with a gift from alumnus Fritz Russ, BSEE ’42, HON ’75, and his wife, Dolores. It is the largest bioengineering prize in the world.

View the full lecture on YouTube.