NASA shine a light on treatment

Doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin have begun to utilise the healing power of light with the help of technology developed for NASA’s Space Shuttle. Using powerful light-emitting diodes, originally designed for commercial plant growth research in space, scientists have found a way to help patients on terra firma.

Doctors are examining how LED’s may help hard-to-heal wounds, such as diabetic skin ulcers, serious burns, and severe oral sores caused by chemotherapy and radiation.

‘So far, what we’ve seen in patients and what we’ve seen in laboratory cell cultures, all point to one conclusion,’ said Dr Harry Whelan, professor of paediatric neurology and director of hyperbaric medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. ‘The near-infrared light emitted by these LED’s seems to be perfect for increasing energy inside cells.’

Dr Whelan’s NASA-funded research has already seen encouraging results using the light-emitting diodes to promote healing of painful mouth ulcers caused by cancer therapies and the treatment is reported to be quick and painless.

The wound-healing device is a 3.5-inch by 4.5-inch, portable flat array of LED’s, arranged in rows on the top of a small box. A nurse places the box of LED’s on the outside of the patient’s cheek for about one minute every day.

The red light penetrates to the inside of the mouth, where it appears to promote wound healing and prevent further sores in the patient’s mouth.

Dr Whelan’s collaboration with NASA began when Ronald Ignatius, owner of Quantum Devices Inc, learned about Dr Whelan’s brain cancer surgery technique using drugs stimulated by laser lights. Laser-light surgical probes are said to be costly and cumbersome in the operating room because they are heavy, with refrigerator-size optical, electrical and cooling systems.

Ignatius originally designed the lights for plant growth experiments through the Wisconsin Centre for NASA’s commercial Space Automation and Robotics.

‘The LED’s needed to grow plants in space produced the same wavelengths of light the doctor needed to remove brain tumours,’ said Ignatius. ‘Plus, when we developed the LED’s for NASA, they had to be lightweight to fly aboard the shuttle and have small cooling systems. These traits make the LED surgery probes easier to use in the operating room and thousands of dollars cheaper than laser systems.’

Quantum Devices altered the surgical probe to emit longer wavelengths of red light that stimulate a photodynamic drug called Benzoporphyrin Derivativeä.

Whelan and his team have reportedly shown that skin and muscle cells grown in cultures and exposed to the LED infrared light grow 150 to 200 percent faster than ground control cultures not stimulated by the light. Scientists are trying to learn how cells convert light into energy, and identify which wavelengths of light are most effective at stimulating growth in different kinds of cells.

A wound-healing device was placed on the USS Salt Lake City submarine, and doctors reported 50-percent faster healing of crewmember’s lacerations when exposed to the LED light. Injuries treated with the LED’s healed in seven days, while untreated injuries took 14 days.

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