A light used to grow plants on the Space Shuttle and in other NASA experiments may now be useful for earth-bound cancer patients. Treatments with a light system called a High Emissivity Aluminiferous Luminescent Substrate (HEALS) have been shown to be effective in helping cancer patients deal with a painful and difficult side effect of chemotherapy treatment known as oral mucositis.
Signs of oral mucositis are sores and ulcers inside the mouth. Oral mucositis is often painful and can hinder a patient’s ability to eat, drink and speak. The open sores that occur with oral mucositis can also become infected, which leads the patient to experience more pain and possible fever. The condition often arises in patients undergoing high dosages of chemotherapy, especially in those patients under treatment for bone marrow and stem cell transplants.
The treatment with the HEALS device involved moving the glowing red light along a patient’s face for up to ninety seconds on each side, every day for up to two weeks. The small light emitting diodes (LEDs) each give off twelve times more light than the sun, and the device contains nearly three hundred diodes, so the light is powerful enough to penetrate the patient’s skin. Since the light from the diodes produces very little heat, doctors and patients need not worry about burns due to exposure. The device is also small and lightweight, about the size of a paperback book.
Dr. Donna Salzman worked as the main clinical physician during the HEALS trials, which were conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. She said that the effectiveness of the HEALS device was “phenomenal” and that patients showed “no adverse effects” from the treatment. Overall, the trial data showed a 96 percent chance that the patients’ improvement could be attributed to treatment with the HEALS lights.
Robin Schumacher is a spokesperson for Quantum Devices, the manufacturers of the HEALS device. Ms. Schumacher explained that the device works by sending light directly into the cells affected by oral mucositis, which increases the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a chemical responsible for cellular metabolism and waste management. She said that the device allows the cells to start the healing process and “increases (their) ability to take out the garbage”.
In its original incarnation, the HEALS devices, then known as the WARP 75, was used in the development of plant growth experiments on various NASA Space Shuttle missions. The device emits light in the near infrared/far red end of the visible light spectrum, which was found to be useful in growing plants in an environment with little space and little to no sunlight.
The technology was also found to be useful in healing troublesome wounds, such as severe burns and skin ulcers related to diabetes. The device is currently awaiting premarket approval from the US Food and Drug Administration.
Helen Stinson, a NASA staffer who oversees the agency’s involvement in the HEALS project, said that the potential applications for the device are “exciting”. She also said that the agency is “proud to be a part of the HEALS technology medical advancements”.