Life-Emitting Diodes: LEDs Promote Healing
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) designed for plant-growth research aboard the space shuttle are being put to a new use in Wisconsin: accelerating wound healing in cancer patients. Scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin have discovered that repeated application of special LEDs speeds recovery from burns, ulcers, and oral sores caused by chemotherapy and radiation. Though the exact reasons for this outcome are not known, speculation suggests that the near-infrared light emitted by LEDs boosts cell energy. Whatever the reason, recovery has been so dramatic in some cases that patients who would previously have required intravenous feeding were able to eat solid foods.
The Medical College treatment uses a portable flat LED array that measures just 3.5 x 4.5 in. The unit is placed outside a patient's cheek for one minute a day. Quickly and painlessly, the light passes through the cheek to the inside of the mouth where it works to heal the painful sores associated with cancer treatments. Used consistently, the lights improve ingestion and help prevent further sores. There is some evidence that these LEDs may also reduce the risk of infection.
This unexpected application of NASA technology came after Ronald Ignatius, owner of Quantum Devices (Barneveld, WI), read about a brain-cancer surgery technique using drugs stimulated by laser lights. The wavelength of light emitted by the laser probes was roughly the same as the LEDs Ignatius had already designed for space research. Only a slight alteration was needed to make the arrays suitable for stimulating a benzoporphyrin derivative, a photodynamic drug. Because the technology was originally designed for use in space, the LEDs are small and light, making them cheaper and easier to use than conventional laser systems, which have large cooling systems.