2017 SPIE Gold Medal

Katarina Svanberg knits optics technology into oncology treatments.

01 July 2017
Karen Thomas

On the small Swedish island of Ven, classes are beginning for the International Graduate Summer School in Biophotonics. In one classroom, students file in while their instructor, dressed in her trademark linen pantsuit and colorful silk scarves, is knitting — her favorite activity during rare moments of spare time.

The instructor is SPIE Fellow Katarina Svanberg, professor and chief consultant of oncology at Lund University Hospital (Sweden), and professor at South China Normal University. Svanberg is well known as an expert in both optics and oncology, specifically in the area of laser light interactions with biological tissue.

For her contributions to biophotonics, Svanberg is the recipient of the 2017 SPIE Gold Medal. The award recognizes her clinical work exploring and verifying the efficacy of phototherapy and in vivo diagnosis in treating cancer patients.

“All the teachers were charismatic and engaging,” writes Jacqueline Andreozzi, who attended the Ven program in 2015 and blogged about it on the Photonics for a Better World blog. “But one of the highlights for me personally was the lecture by Dr. Katarina Svanberg where she conveyed her clinical experience in cancer treatment.”

In the lecture, Andreozzi says, Svanberg pointed out that, “we have responsibilities as scientists to be strategic in our research,” and she emphasized the humanitarian potential of our work in medicine, as well as the scope of health issues that impact people around the world.

“She is a truly inspiring individual, with a kind heart, sharp wit, and admirable outlook regarding her fellow citizens of this world,” Andreozzi writes.

Svanberg was instrumental in helping found the highly regarded International Graduate Summer School in Biophotonics on Ven.

SPIE Fellow Peter Andersen of Technical University of Denmark (DTU) and SPIE member Stefan Andersson-Engels, who moved from Lund University to Tyndall National Institute (Ireland) in 2016, launched the program in 2003 in a collaboration between DTU and Lund University. SPIE is now a cosponsor.

During the biennial, weeklong program, Svanberg makes sure her students learn not only the relevant biological and medical background of biomedical optics, but also that a clinical collaborator needs to learn and understand some of the physics and techniques “knitted” into the research.

Keeping the medical community involved with the science and engineering community is an ongoing challenge, says SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs.

As Sweden’s leading oncologist working with medical lasers, “Dr. Svanberg played a major role in building SPIE biomedical programs, particularly in Europe,” Arthurs says. Because she is a practicing clinician, Svanberg’s leadership role in SPIE conferences and journals has lent strong and crucial credibility to those programs. “Her ideas, encouragement, and participation contribute to the very successful BiOS, the largest element of Photonics West,” Arthurs says.


As a child in the small town of Mariestad (Sweden), Svanberg dreamed of becoming a doctor, perhaps influenced by her parents, who both grew up poor and lost young siblings because of a lack of proper medications.

Although neither of her parents went beyond 6th grade in school, they worked hard to ensure that their only child, Katarina, would attend university.

“My mother had always wanted to study, but her situation did not allow that,” Svanberg says, “so she told me that she worked hard to let me study instead of her.”

Svanberg’s mother, who ran a yarn shop, also instilled in her daughter a lifelong love for designing and knitting clothing. This penchant for design would later play an important role in Svanberg’s ability to develop new medical procedures.

At the University of Gothenburg (GU), instead of medicine, Svanberg studied history and literature and became a high school teacher. Soon after starting her teaching career, she married a PhD candidate in physics, Sune Svanberg. Sune Svanberg would later serve on the Nobel Committee for Physics.

Katarina Svanberg taught high school for some years, eventually gaining a high-level position as a lead teacher, but the dream of studying medicine did not fade. She eventually decided to make her dream a reality, left her teaching job, and applied for medical studies at GU.

To help support the family, Svanberg gave lectures in economic history at night and studied medicine during the day.

“After all,” Svanberg jokes, “I had married a scientist who worked around the clock, so I had a lot of time to spend.”

She also found the time to have two daughters, Emilie and Kristina.


She received her MD at GU in 1984.

After Sune Svanberg transferred to Lund University for a professorship in physics, Katarina started her PhD program in medical science and studied laser light interaction in biological tissue.

Both Svanbergs had begun to consider the possibility of combining his knowledge of physics and her medical background while Katarina was still in medical school. The use of lasers in medicine came up — in particular photodynamic therapy (PDT), which entails using photosensitizing agents and light to kill cancer cells.

They studied current literature in the biophotonics field, which Svanberg notes was “infinitely less” than today, almost 35 years later. Working with the oncology division at Lund University Hospital, Svanberg conducted the first clinical PDT session in April 1987.

She earned her PhD in 1989 with a thesis in medical science that presented pre-clinical research work in experimental photodynamic therapy and tissue spectroscopy.

Over the years, the Svanbergs met with clinical heads from internal medicine to brain surgery and began the process of establishing the Lund University Medical Laser Centre. The center was officially inaugurated in 1991 to coordinate research and teaching in the field of laser applications in medicine.

“Together we were able to transfer our ideas to clinical use,” Svanberg says. “We developed both the PDT therapy as well as early cancer detection with me as a kind of spider in the complicated net of medical collaboration.”

Svanberg frequently attends the ICTP Winter College on Optics.
Courtesy ICTP

Their equipment for fluorescence-based tumor imaging was used not only at Lund University Hospital but was also taken to several other universities and clinics in Europe and Africa.

“As a pioneering oncologist, Katarina has personally treated thousands of patients and mentored dozens of physicians and scientists in PDT methods around the world,” says SPIE Fellow Bruce Tromberg, director of the Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine (USA). Tromberg notes that since introducing PDT to Sweden in the 1980s, Svanberg has played a key role in advancing PDT worldwide, particularly in Brazil and China, and led the first prospective randomized Phase III trial of PDT more than 15 years ago.

“In addition to her contributions to this technical field, Katarina has played a significant role in expanding the impact and visibility of optics and photonics in the broader communities of biology and medicine,” Tromberg says.

The Svanberg legacy of collaboration is being continued today through daughter Emilie. A specialist in anesthesiology and intensive care, Emilie Svanberg is currently involved in a project using diode laser spectroscopy to diagnose pulmonary disorders in newborns.

Katarina Svanberg and South China Normal University student Wansha Li work with a spectroscopic setup.
Photo by Sune Svanberg

Katarina Svanberg’s contributions to the fields of tissue spectroscopy and photodynamic therapy have brought her recognition throughout the world, and her research collaborations cover five continents. Her groundbreaking work on laser-induced tissue fluorescence have made “optical biopsy” a reality for many types of cancer.

Now called “translational research,” her longstanding approach to medical science and technology has been “a guiding light throughout her career and has served as a beacon to others,” says SPIE Fellow and 2016 SPIE President Robert Lieberman of Lumoptix (USA).

“This deep commitment to the practical application of optics and photonics for the diagnosis and treatment of disease has helped save and improve the lives of hundreds of individuals,” Lieberman says. “Furthermore, her activities in the developing world have changed countless other lives by bringing hope and guidance to many who would otherwise have no chance to contribute to science.”

Svanberg, who served as SPIE president in 2011 and was a member of the SPIE Board of Directors from 2005 to 2007, sees receiving the SPIE Gold Medal as a crown on top of her career.

Katarina Svanberg and African colleagues treat a patient with photodynamic therapy in Dakar, Senegal, as part of a Swedish/ African network for developing countries.

She is quick to point out, however, that she would not have reached this level without the collaborative help of Sune Svanberg, now an SPIE Fellow, Andersson-Engels, Niels Bendsoe, and several others, as her work has reached across disciplines.

“I may have been instrumental in connecting people from the medical side,” Svanberg says, “but without the physicists, this would not have been possible.

Svanberg feels her involvement with SPIE, including serving as an editorial board member for the Journal of Biomedical Optics, is valuable not only to her work but also because through SPIE, she’s had the chance to meet young scientists around the world. She believes it is important to encourage young people, especially girls, and help them develop self-confidence.

“I have tried to tell them some useful things from my own experience,” Svanberg says. “If you feel you are not doing the thing you really want to do, do not be afraid to change your situation — even if it may mean a 180-degree turn-around.”

She tells her students and other young scientists that life is about facing new challenges, not being afraid of the unknown, and being open to change. She uses her own life as an example. “Myself, I switched from a being a teacher of history and literature to become a medical doctor!” she says.

Svanberg will be presented with the SPIE Gold Medal 9 August during SPIE Optics + Photonics.

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