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The development and application of ablative photodecomposition in corrective eye surgeries, known today as PRK and LASIK, has given millions of people throughout the world better vision. At the end of 2011, approximately 25 million people had undergone pulsed ultraviolet laser surgery to improve their eyesight, a procedure made possible by the collaborative efforts of Rangaswamy Srinivasan, James J. Wynne, and Samuel Blum.
In 1981 while working at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, Srinivasan, Wynne, and Blum discovered that pulsed laser radiation at 193 nm from an argon fluoride (ArF) excimer laser could etch animal tissue, with sub-micron precision. Just as important, the laser caused no thermal damage to the adjacent tissue.
The initial discovery was made on Nov. 27, 1981, when Srinivasan brought leftovers from his Thanksgiving meal into the lab. He irradiated turkey cartilage with pulses of light from the ArF (193 nm) excimer laser, and found it made a clean "incision" in the tissue. On subsequent days, Srinivasan and Blum carried out additional turkey cartilage procedures under controlled conditions, measuring the laser’s effect and the number of pulses used to produce incisions.
In parallel studies, Wynne conducted a comparable experiment using pulsed laser radiation at 532nm from a Q-switched, frequency-doubled, Nd:YAG laser (532 nm), which did not result in a clean incision like that of the excimer laser. Instead, it left a burned and damaged region of tissue.
In 1982 and 1983, Srinivasan and Wynne began to study the effects of the ultraviolet excimer laser on human tissue through collaborations with cardiologists, ophthalmologists, dermatologists, and dental anatomists. The two men, along with co-workers, obtained fresh arterial tissue from a cadaver at New York Hospital and irradiated a segment of the aorta with both 193 nm light from the ArF excimer laser and separately with 532 nm pulses from the Nd:YAG laser. The experiment yielded the same results as the turkey experiment. The excimer laser left no detectable evidence of thermal damage to the underlying and adjacent tissue while the 532 nm pulses caused visible thermal damage.
In 1983, Srinivasan, his IBM colleague Bodil Braren, and ophthalmologist Stephen Trokel published a paper on the potential for laser eye surgery in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. The publication detailed an excimer laser experiment on several enucleated calf eyes, which also yielded excellent results and is regarded by the ophthalmic community as a seminal paper in laser refractive surgery.
The 2013 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize is awarded to Rangaswamy Srinivasan, James J. Wynne, and Samuel E. Blum “for the development of laser ablative photodecomposition, enabling LASIK and PRK eye surgery.”