Technology Shines Light on Healing
Doctors at the Medical
College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee have discovered the healing power of
light with the help of technology developed for NASA's Space Shuttle.
Using powerful light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, originally designed for
commercial plant growth research in space, scientists have found a way
to help patients here on Earth.
Doctors are examining how
this special lighting technology helps hard-to-heal wounds, such as
diabetic skin ulcers, serious burns, and severe oral sores caused by
chemotherapy and radiation. The project includes laboratory and human
trials, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and funded by
a NASA Small Business Innovation Research contract through the
Technology Transfer Department at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
in Huntsville, Ala.
"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
pediatric neurology and director of hyperbaric medicine at the Medical
College of Wisconsin. "The near-infrared light emitted by these
LEDs seems to be perfect for increasing energy inside cells. This means
whether you're on Earth in a hospital, working in a submarine under the
sea or on your way to Mars inside a spaceship, the LEDs boost energy to
the cells and accelerate healing."
Dr. Whelan’s findings
will be summarized in upcoming issues of Space Technology and
Applications International Forum 2001 and in The Journal of Clinical
Laser Medicine and Surgery. Other related peer-reviewed journals have
published articles on Whelan’s medical research with light-emitting
Dr. Whelan's NASA-funded
research has already seen remarkable results using the light-emitting
diodes to promote healing of painful mouth ulcers caused by cancer
therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy. The treatment is quick and
The wound-healing device is
a small, 3.5-inch by 4.5-inch (89-millimeter by 114-millimeter),
portable flat array of LEDs, arranged in rows on the top of a small box.
A nurse practitioner places the box of LEDs on the outside of the
patient's cheek about one minute each day. The red light penetrates to
the inside of the mouth, where it seems to promote wound healing and
prevent further sores in the patient's mouth.
"Some children who
probably would have had to be fed intravenously because of the severe
sores in their mouths have been able to eat solid food, " said Dr.
David Margolis, an oncologist at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in
Milwaukee and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical
College of Wisconsin. Margolis, whose pediatric cancer patients are
participating in the study, explained that, "Preventing oral
mucositis improves the patients' ability to eat and drink and also may
reduce the risk of infections in patients with compromised immune
Dr. Whelan's collaboration
with NASA began when Ronald Ignatius, owner of Quantum Devices Inc. in
Barneveld, Wis., learned about Dr. Whelan's brain cancer surgery
technique using drugs stimulated by laser lights. Laser-light surgical
probes are costly and cumbersome in the operating room because they are
heavy, with refrigerator-size optical, electrical and cooling systems.
designed the lights for plant growth experiments through the Wisconsin
Center for Space Automation and Robotics, a NASA commercial space center
at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
"The LEDs needed to
grow plants in space produced the same wavelengths of light the doctor
needed to remove brain tumors," said Ignatius. "Plus, when we
developed the LEDs 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 . Doctors at the
Children's Hospital of Wisconsin recently completed the first-ever
surgery with the improved probe and medicine. The drug also has fewer
side effects after surgery. The ongoing brain surgery study is described
in a 1999 peer-reviewed journal article in Pediatric Neurosurgery.
"At NASA, we work with
companies like Quantum Devices to take technologies developed for use in
space and bring the benefits back home to Earth," said Helen
Stinson of Marshall’s Technology Transfer Department. "NASA is
proud to support a program that helps children with brain cancer -- and
promises to help even greater numbers of people with technology to
accelerate the healing process."
In the laboratory, Whelan
and his team have 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.
To expand the wound healing
study, Whelan -- a commander and diving medical officer in the U.S. Navy
reserve assigned to Naval Special Warfare Command (Naval Special Warfare
Group TWO) -- is working with doctors at Navy Special Warfare Command
centers in Norfolk, Va., and San Diego, Calif. They reported a 40
percent improvement in patients who had musculoskeletal training
injuries treated with the light-emitting diodes.
A wound-healing device was
placed on the USS Salt Lake City submarine and other subs belonging to
Submarine Squadron ELEVEN, where doctors are currently studying the
effects of LED light on crewmembers’ injuries in the unique submarine
The LED research project
will continue for the next 18 months, with doctors studying 100 patients
at two major teaching affiliates of the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Researchers will continue to examine the influence of LEDs on cells
grown in the laboratory, and will explore the benefits that LEDs might
provide to counteract possible cell damage caused by exposure to harmful
radiation and weightlessness during long space missions.