Physics: Molecules and Medicine

Physics is about understanding the laws that govern the world around us. Most people know about the problems solved and the discoveries made by physicists in the past: the orbits of planets found by Galileo, the law of gravity first unravelled by Newton and later extended by Einstein, for instance. It is not as widely known how diverse the subjects investigated by physicists are now, and how profoundly their discoveries change our everyday life. Modern hospitals are among the best showcases of the remarkable and often unexpected ways in which, for more then a century, Physics has been the key to new treatments and more and more accurate diagnostics. X rays, ultrasounds, optical fibres, ion and neutron beams are all examples of how breakthroughs in Physics become practical tools to ‘see’ and ‘reach’ inside our bodies. Physics enables clinicians to cure diseases such as cancer and kidney stones by destroying unhealthy tissues by delivering energy in the most appropriate form and in the most precise way exactly where it is needed.


While the developments of these well-established applications is far from over, new branches of Physics are heralding a new era of even more powerful applications of basic Physics to the life sciences and to medicine. The new frontier is detection and control of single molecule processes and understanding the properties of fluorescent light, i.e. light spontaneously emitted by matter after it absorbs energy, is the key to progress in this direction.


The Photophysics group of the University of Strathclyde is a world leader in improving our understanding of the formation and dynamics of nanostructures such as ceramics, soft solids and macromolecules and the related development of molecular sensors through innovation in detection of light emitted by molecules. The combination of measures of the time duration of fluorescence with a careful control of the surfaces in which the molecules are deposited, is leading this group closer and closer to the long term goal of making nano-movies of the evolution of the molecular structure at the ultimate limit of single-molecule resolution. In recent years the emphasis of this Group’s work has shifted to applications, particularly at the life-science interface and in nanotechnology. By detecting medically important substances such as glucose, proteins, metal ions etc down to the single molecule level under controlled conditions, these researchers aim to better understand the fundamental building-blocks of biomolecular interaction that underpins disease pathology and therapeutics.  Among the applications closely aligned to medicine are, for example, the understanding and control of protein misfolding leading to the fatal prion disorders such as CJD and non-invasive in-vivo monitoring of glucose for diabetes management.



Among all the practical implications of the applications of Physics to life sciences and medicine, there is also the extremely high employability in these disciplines of physicists, who are now in even higher demand. Although maintaining the same rigorous approach to science as the founders of Physics Galileo and Newton, physicists are now working in highly interdisciplinary environments together with scientists and engineers with differing backgrounds.  These changes in the working practices and the emergence of new demands from the job markets are reflected in the structure of the degrees at the Universities that are most involved with research in these new fields. In these Universities the pace of the research and the consequent wealth of contacts with high-tech companies underpin the teaching in terms of the subjects taught and of the way in which these are delivered. Both at undergraduate and at postgraduate level, classes in traditional physics subjects such us electromagnetism are complemented by classes in bio-physics and in bio-technologies. The world is fast changing, but Physics remains the essential driving force behind progress and innovation, as it was four hundred years ago.



Article By:

Dr Francesco Papoff
University of Strathclyde

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