February 15, 2003
A Light Touch
like to eat salad in space, life is getting easier for bone marrow
transplant patients. An enlightening story of serendipity.
By Scott C. Anderson
NASA is justifiably proud of its Technology Transfer
Program, which spins off its space-age inventions -- from Tang and
Teflon to rechargeable batteries - for use in the private sector.
But they recently outdid themselves with a remarkable "healing light"
that is making life much easier for patients with hard-to-heal wounds,
including those who have recently had bone marrow transplants (BMTs).
As with many inventions, the development took several
sharp turns. This story starts with salads for astronauts. NASA
has long done research to determine how to grow plants in outer
space, but typical grow lights are large, delicate and hot. This
was a job for Ron Ignatius, the owner of Quantum Devices Inc. in
Barneveld, Wisconsin, and a pioneer in exotic lighting. At a meeting
with several scientists, Ignatius proposed using light-emitting
diodes, or LEDs, as grow lamps. At the time, LEDs were known only
as low-power lights used in displays. There was a noticeable skepticism
in the room. As Ignatius puts it, "When the laughter died down,
one professor decided he'd give it a try."
Light is typically a mixture of many frequencies,
or colors. It includes the infrared, which is invisible to the human
eye but can be felt as radiant heat. Ignatius realized that if he
could concentrate the light into just the frequencies that plants
need, he could avoid creating heat and at the same time be more
energy efficient. Lasers can do this, but the ones that deliver
enough light are both bulky and finicky. LEDs are small and reliable.
Ignatius designed one that would glow in the red part of the spectrum,
at a frequency that is maximal for plants, yet produced no heat.
It worked beautifully. Astronauts can now grow lettuce and spinach
in space, making their stays more pleasant. That delighted Ignatius,
but something else caught his eye. He read a story about Harry Whelan,
MD, who was doing cancer research using photosensitive drugs
at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Ignatius
noticed that the laser Dr. Whelan was using had almost the same
frequency as his grow lights, so he sent him an LED to experiment
Dr. Whelan started to use the LEDs in place of the laser, saving a lot
of space, hassle and money. But Dr. Whelan also had a separate line
of research using lights to treat wounds. To his surprise, he discovered
that the grow lamp frequency was optimal for promoting healing.
Why would a grow lamp for plants help to heal human tissue? Dr. Whelan
speculates that the answer lies in a chemical called cytochrome.
This chemical is a key part of normal cellular metabolism and is
found in both plants and animals. Cytochrome absorbs red light and
converts it into chemical energy. That energy promotes growth in
plants and wound healing in animals.
Dr. Whelan says, "So far, what we see in patients and cell cultures
all point to one conclusion -- 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, or on your way
to Mars inside a spaceship, the LEDs boost energy to the cells and
Dr. Whelan found other uses for the LEDs. He tried the therapy on mucositis,
which is a nasty side effect of most BMTs. Patients with mucositis
get sores in the mouth and down the esophagus, which can make it
unpleasant to eat or even drink.
In his mucositis study, Dr. Whelan simply held the LED on the patient's
cheek for about a minute. The deeply penetrating rays produced no
heat and no pain, but they stopped the mucositis in its tracks.
David Margolis, MD, an oncologist and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, has enrolled several young
cancer patients in Dr. Whelan's study and is impressed with the
results "Children who probably would have to be fed intravenously
because of the severe sores in their mouths have been able to eat
solid food. Preventing mucositis improves the patient's ability
to eat and drink and also reduces the risk of infections in patients
with compromised immune systems."
One of Dr. Whelan's first patients was 16-year old Eric Tydd, who was
in his third relapse of Hodgkin's disease. This time, he would need
a BMT. Eric knew what was ahead. "The doctors were set on me having
mucositis because they've done over 500 bone marrow transplants
before," he said. "They can almost tell you the exact day when you're
going to get it."
But with daily exposures to the LED light, that's not what happened.
"We were expecting total mouth sores, all the way down (his throat),"
said Eric's father. "And he didn't have any."
Eric was able to come home a month ahead of schedule. Although his cancer
treatment was grueling, Eric was pleased that he escaped mucositis.
"Basically, all patients get it. It was just really, really amazing
that I didn't," he said. "I'm sure that's why I'm so healthy today."
Dr. Whelan has high expectations for the therapy.
He says, "Our ultimate goal is to provide hope to patients who previously
had nowhere to turn, by developing a new area of medicine which
non-invasively enhances the natural healing mechanisms in our cells."
For BMT patients, the outlook has never been brighter.
Copyright © 2000-2014 by Scott Anderson
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