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NASA light tech could ease radiotherapy side effects

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | March 11, 2011
Light technology originally developed by NASA to help plants grow on the space shuttle could help ease chemotherapy and radiation therapy side effects, according to the U.S. space program.

The technology emits high-intensity light with limited heat to stimulate cell growth. The results of a preliminary trial released this week suggest it could help ease painful ulcerations and inflammation of the mouth, known as oral mucositis, a side effect experienced by cancer patients undergoing a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

"Using this technology as a healing agent was phenomenal," said Dr. Donna Salzman, principal investigator with the research group at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, in a statement.

According to NASA, cells exposed to near-infrared light produced by the light-emitting diodes grow 1.5 times to twice as fast as cells that aren't. The technology was used on space shuttle plant-growing experiments in the 1990s. And it has already been cleared to help humans. In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, approved the High Emissivity Aluminiferous Luminescent Substrate, or HEALS, technology for easing minor muscle and joint pain.

The idea behind photobiomodulation therapy is that wavelength-specific photon energy can affect the organelles within the cell, increasing respiratory metabolism, reducing inflammation and accelerating recovery from injuries or stress, according to materials posted on NASA's website.

In the current trial, the scientists used a 3-by-5 inch device bristling with red LEDs, dubbed the WARP 75, which was developed by Quantum Devices Inc. of Barneveld, Wisc.

For the study, the researchers enrolled pediatric cancer patients: 20 from Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and 60 patients from the University of Alabama and the Children's Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham.

The experiment worked as follows: starting the day of the bone marrow transplant, the LED array was held up to a patient's left cheek for one minute a day for two weeks. It was also held up to the right cheek, after blocking it with foil, to act as a "sham" treatment. The throat - also affected by mucositis - was untreated, to act as a control, the scientists said.

The result: about half of the treated patients in the bone marrow transplant group developed mucositis, less than the 70 to 90 percent expected based on epidemiological information, NASA said.

"Our first study was very encouraging, and using the LED device greatly reduced or prevented the mucositis problem, which is so painful and devastating to these children," said Dr. Harry Whelan, professor of neurology, pediatrics and hyperbaric medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and a study investigator. "But we still need to learn more. We're conducting further clinical trials with larger groups and expanded control groups, as required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, before the device can be approved and available for widespread use."

Clinical trials are expected to take nearly three years and involve 80 patients in Wisconsin, New York, Illinois, Brazil and Israel, NASA said.

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