Page last updated at 14:04 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 15:04 UK

Meet the innovators

Four innovations and their creators have been shortlisted for the world's biggest technology prize, the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize.

But what are they and what impact have they had on the world?


The DNA fingerprinting technique developed by British geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys has revolutionised the field of forensic science, and police detective work.

It has also played an important role in the resolution of paternity and immigration disputes.

DNA fingerprints are examined all around the world, even in portable laboratories, and the equipment for genetic fingerprinting is being made by dozens of companies globally.

Sir Alec discovered the technique for DNA fingerprinting in a "Eureka" moment while examining an X-ray that formed part of a DNA experiment, analysing genetic markers for fundamental human studies.

What the experiment revealed, unexpectedly, were extraordinarily variable DNA patterns showing simple inheritance in his technician's family's DNA. Sir Alec realised the importance of this discovery, which was in effect a biological identification method.

"That moment changed my life," he says. And it led to the development of techniques that would fundamentally change this area of science.

Sir Alec is Professor of Genetics at the University of Leicester and continues to work at the genetics laboratory.


The innovation of Prof David Payne, Dr Emmanuel Desurvire and Dr Randy Giles, has transformed global telecommunications, particularly the world of high-speed and long-distance communication.

Amplifiers are need to boost degraded light signals as they travel through the fibre.

The EDFA eliminated a key problem of amplification in the 1980s, namely the need to convert the light into an electrical signal and then resend with a new laser.

The work or Desurvire, Giles and Payne reduced the cost of creating long-distance fibre-optic networks and "unleashed" the bandwidth of long-distance fibre-optics networks.

The EDFA has led to the rapid rise of the global net, impacting business, education and leisure for billions of people.

The breakthrough of the three scientists was to use the heavy element erbium, which was perfect for amplifying the signal of light used in fibre optic networks.

The first commercial application of the EDFA was in underwater communication cables. The amplifiers sit inside torpedo-like repeaters that are placed in cable every 500km to 800km.

The introduction of these amplifiers led to the depression of the communication satellite markets.

EFDAs are now found in fibre optic networks around the world and the latest amplifiers are the size of a match box.


Dr Andrew Viterbi's innovation has touched the lives of potentially billions of people. His algorithm advanced the design and implementation of modern wireless communication systems by simplifying the complex and convoluted world of signal processing.

The algorithm is an error-correction scheme for digital communications and is now used every day in billions of mobile phone calls, satellite communications, wireless networks and even MP3 players.

He published his algorithm in 1967 but it did not find an application until computing power became powerful enough to deal with the massive calculations needed to apply it.

Taking the advice of his lawyer, who felt there was no general application for the algorithm, he did not patent it.

He co-founded Qualcomm, helping develop the popular CDMA standard, which is a rival to GSM, and is in use in 3G networks around the world today.


Prof Robert Langer is a pioneer of many new technologies, including transdermal delivery systems, which allow the administration of drugs through the skin without needles or other invasive methods.

His work in drug-releasing polymers eventually led to the creation of a novel way to treat brain cancer.

His research into polymers has allowed for more accurate and controlled release of drugs into the body.

Polymers include plastics, DNA and proteins, and while they are mostly thought of as plastics, polymers comprise a large class of natural and synthetic materials with a variety of properties and purposes.

Prof Langer's breakthrough was to create a three-dimensional matrix structure for polymers which allowed the drug molecules to pass through and into the patient's system.

His work has also brought about significant advances in tissue engineering, including synthetic replacement for biological tissues.

He has more than 600 issued and pending patents, has published approximately 1,000 articles and 13 books, and is known as the father of controlled drug delivery and tissue engineering.

Innovators shortlisted for award
08 Apr 08 |  Technology
Top prize for 'light' inventor
08 Sep 06 |  Technology
New honour for the web's inventor
15 Apr 04 |  Technology

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