Biophotonics '17: Lecture by Prof. Lihong Wang

Photoacoustic Tomography: Ultrasonically Breaking Through the Optical Diffusion Limit

Prof. Lihong Wang

Professor Lihong Wang

Ph.D., Gene K. Beare Distinguished Professor
Optical Imaging Laboratory
Department of Biomedical Engineering
Washington University in St. Louis, United States



Photoacoustic tomography has been developed for in vivo early-cancer detection and functional or molecular imaging by physically combining non-ionizing electromagnetic and ultrasonic waves. Unlike ionizing x-ray radiation, non-ionizing electromagnetic waves—such as optical and radio waves—pose no health hazard and reveal new contrast mechanisms. Unfortunately, electromagnetic waves in the non-ionizing spectral region do not penetrate biological tissue in straight paths as x-rays do. Consequently, high-resolution tomography based on non-ionizing electromagnetic waves alone—such as confocal microscopy, two-photon microscopy, and optical coherence tomography—is limited to superficial imaging within approximately one optical transport mean free path (~1 mm in the skin) of the surface of scattering biological tissue. Ultrasonic imaging, on the contrary, provides good image resolution but has strong speckle artifacts as well as poor contrast in early-stage tumors. Ultrasound-mediated imaging modalities that combine electromagnetic and ultrasonic waves can synergistically overcome the above limitations. The hybrid modalities provide relatively deep penetration at high ultrasonic resolution and yield speckle-free images with high electromagnetic contrast.

In photoacoustic computed tomography, a pulsed broad laser beam illuminates the biological tissue to generate a small but rapid temperature rise, which leads to emission of ultrasonic waves due to thermoelastic expansion. The short-wavelength pulsed ultrasonic waves are then detected by unfocused ultrasonic transducers. High-resolution tomographic images of optical contrast are then formed through image reconstruction. Endogenous optical contrast can be used to quantify the concentration of total hemoglobin, the oxygen saturation of hemoglobin, and the concentration of melanin. Melanoma and other tumors have been imaged in vivo. Exogenous optical contrast can be used to provide molecular imaging and reporter gene imaging.

In photoacoustic microscopy, a pulsed laser beam is focused into the biological tissue to generate ultrasonic waves, which are then detected with a focused ultrasonic transducer to form a depth resolved 1D image. Raster scanning yields 3D high-resolution tomographic images. Super-depths beyond the optical diffusion limit have been reached with high spatial resolution.

Thermoacoustic tomography is similar to photoacoustic tomography except that low-energy microwave pulses, instead of laser pulses, are used. Although long-wavelength microwaves diffract rapidly, the short-wavelength microwave-induced ultrasonic waves provide high spatial resolution, which breaks through the microwave diffraction limit. Microwave contrast measures the concentrations of water and ions.

The annual conference on this topic has been doubling in size approximately every three years since 2003 and has become the largest in SPIE’s Photonics West as of 2009.


L. V. Wang and S. Hu, “Photoacoustic tomography: in vivo imaging from organelles to organs,” Science 335, 1458–1462 (2012).


M. Xu and L.-H. Wang, “Biomedical photoacoustics,” Review of Scientific Instruments 77, 041101 (2006).