The science and technology that astronauts use to heal flesh wounds they receive while circling Earth could soon help the rest of us gravity-bound humans when we have persistent injuries that won’t heal.
Light-emitting diodes, otherwise known in NASA lingo as LEDs – originally developed for NASA Space Shuttle plant growth experiments – have been found to be helpful in speeding up healing in outer space when astronauts got injured. Now doctors in certain parts of the country are beginning to experiment with them for the treatment of persistent wounds in hospitals, especially in patients that have chronic wounds and sores from chemotherapy and radiation.
"For most wounds, we do not need to interfere with nature's healing," said Dr. Harry T. Whelan, one of the leading researchers in the field of LED technology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "But this technology may be the answer for problem wounds that are slow to heal."
After the NASA breakthrough, Whelan found that diabetic skin ulcers and other wounds in mice healed much faster when exposed to LEDs. In 2000, he proposed testing them on humans and that same year received approval from The Food and Drug Administration to do so. The study, funded by NASA, specifically examined the LED’s effects on diabetic skin ulcers, serious burns and flesh wounds caused by radiation and chemotherapy treatments on patients from hospitals affiliated with the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Whelan and colleague, Dr. David Margolis, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and an oncologist at a Medical College of Wisconsin hospital whose pediatric cancer patients are participating in the research, then studied LEDs in comparison to and in conjunction with hyperbaric oxygen therapy – the standard treatment for stubborn wounds, in which the patient is placed in a pressurized oxygen chamber to stimulate new cell growth. The results: a quicker improvement in the healing process of a wound when using LED therapy.
"So far, what we see in patients and what we see in laboratory cell cultures, all point to one conclusion," said Dr. Whelan. "The near-infrared light emitted by these LEDs seems to be perfect for increasing energy inside cells."
Whelan and Margolis are also using LED therapy to not only treat painful external wounds, but internal as well. Mouth ulcers from chemotherapy often prevent children with cancer from eating, but the painless LED treatment allows for them to chew again.
"Some children who probably would have to be fed intravenously because of the severe sores in their mouths have been able to eat solid food," Margolis said. "It also reduces the risk of infections in patients with compromised immune systems."
NASA originally developed LED technology to enhance the growth of plant tissue in space, but soon found that LEDs have a similar physiological effect on human cells as they do on plant cells. In space, the lack of gravity keeps cells from growing naturally, resulting in slow-growing plant life and loss of bone mass, atrophied muscles and wounds that do not heal properly in astronauts. LEDs increase the energy metabolism of cells.
Laser light has been shown to have similar effects on growing cells, but lasers are heavy, inefficient, more costly and do not offer the ideal wavelength of light for cell growth. The specially designed near-infrared LED has a longer wavelength than laser light that penetrates deeper without damaging the skin. Even though it is three times brighter than the sun, the LED is very safe and easy to use, portable and actually cool to the touch.
The US military has also put LED therapy to good use. An LED array is currently on board a US Navy nuclear submarine for treatment of potential training injuries. Whelan’s other hat is as a commander in the Navy and a diving medical officer for the Naval Special Warfare Command, which includes the SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) teams.
"Whether you're on Earth in a hospital, working on a submarine under the sea, or on your way to Mars inside a spaceship, the LEDs boost energy to the cells and accelerate healing," Whelan said.
Interested patients who would qualify and like to participate in Dr. Whelan’s LED study should call Joan Cwiklinski at Wisconsin Medical College (414) 454-5060.