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 painless.

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 systems.”

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.

Ignatius originally 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 Derivative*. 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 doctors reported 50-percent faster healing of crewmember’s
lacerations when exposed to the LED light. Injuries treated with the LEDs
healed in seven days, while untreated injuries took 14 days.

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