Federal Player of the Week

Leon Esterowitz: Laser pioneer applied his science to national defense and health care

Leon Esterowitz, director of biophotonics program, National Science Foundation
Leon Esterowitz, director of biophotonics program, National Science Foundation (Photo: National Science Foundation)
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The Partnership for Public Service
Monday, February 28, 2011; 12:06 PM

During his long career in the federal government, Leon Esterowitz has bridged a great divide, one that has taken him from military laboratories developing night vision devices and surveillance and guidance systems for our national defense to using some of the same technologies to improve human health.

Now a program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), Esterowitz is employing his encyclopedic knowledge of lasers and optics to identify scientists and engineers who are engaged in breakthrough health care research, and then providing funding for their efforts to develop low- cost, minimally invasive medical diagnostics and therapies.

Some of the NSF-funded projects targeted by Esterowitz involve work by researchers at universities who are developing unique tests to provide early warning signals for the occurrence of colon, lung, pancreatic, ovarian and prostate cancers, potentially savings tens of thousands of lives.

At 75-years of age, Esterowitz said he is getting "higher satisfaction" from his work today than in the decades past when he was doing his own cutting-edge scientific research.

"I would do this for free," said Esterowitz. "My mother died of pancreatic cancer, my younger sister had ovarian cancer and there have been other members in my family who had cancer," he said. "If we are able to detect the presence of these cancers before they actually occur, it would be a tremendous advancement. This is a huge motivation to keep me going."

Brian Cunningham, a professor of biomedical imaging and engineering at the University of Illinois, has received NSF funding through Esterowitz for the development of biosensors to detect proteins in the blood that can tell if someone has cancer. Cunningham said that a tumor today has to be big enough to show up on an X-ray, but he explained that the new test will show as many as 30 different cancer proteins at one time before any tumors have actually developed or are visible.

Cunningham said Esterowitz brings extensive knowledge and understanding of complex research, and is a forceful advocate inside the National Science Foundation for this type of work.

"Leon knows the technical areas very well and everything that is going on in the field," said Cunningham. "He is not just an administrator, but someone who knows the challenges first hand and has a broad view that he has developed over time."

Esterowitz also has provided funding support to Vadim Backman of Northwestern University, who with colleagues created a system that detects cancer in the colon, lung and pancreas simply using reflected light. The technique is minimally invasive, requiring mere minutes of analysis on the outermost section of the colon.

Esterowitz completed his doctorate in physics at New York University in the 1960s, where he worked on early laser development. He then went on to lead the quantum electronics group of the Night Vision Laboratory at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, and from 1971 to 1999, he served in various positions in the Optical Sciences Division at the Naval Research Laboratory.

Over the years, Esterowitz developed next-generation infrared imaging technology for surveillance, target acquisition, identification, weapons guidance and threat-warning systems. Part of his work centered on the government's Strategic Defense Initiative, or the Star Wars program, that was begun under President Reagan. He later refined some of this work to create night vision devices and ultimately some of the first modern infrared medical lasers. In late 1999, he moved to the NSF.

Esterowitz is the author of 332 papers and has been awarded 34 patents, 15 of them on medical laser development.

Although he has been making tremendous progress at the science foundation, Esterowitz said the "hardest part of my job is that I don't have enough time to do all of the things I want to do."

"I could probably do more on diagnostics, therapies and infectious diseases" he said. "I just wish I had more time and resources to focus on other things to make a bigger impact on human health."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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