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|Space Research Shines A Light On Tumors To Save Lives|
Special lighting technology developed for NASAs commercial plant growth experiments in space may soon help treat cancer and save lives on Earth.
A treatment technique called Photodynamic Therapy is using tiny pinhead-size Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) -- developed for NASA Space Shuttle plant growth experiments -- to activate light-sensitive, tumor-treating drugs.
Experiments indicate that when special tumor-fighting drugs are illuminated with LEDs, the tumors are more effectively destroyed than with conventional surgery. The light source, consisting of 144 of the tiny diodes, is compact -- the size of a small human finger about one-half-inch in diameter -- and mechanically more reliable than lasers and other light sources used to treat cancer. The entire light source and cooling system is only the size of a medium suitcase.
NASA funded contracts through the Small Business Innovation Research Program to demonstrate the feasibility of using LEDs in cancer treatment. The program is managed by the Technology Transfer Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The LEDs developed for Marshall Center by Quantum Devices, Inc. of Barneveld, Wis., were first intended for use in food growth experiments in space. In the new application, they form the tip of a new nine-inch neural probe.
"This new probe illuminates through all nearby tissues," said Dr. Harry Whelan, pediatric neurologist of the Childrens Hospital of Wisconsin, and professor of neurology at the Medical College of Milwaukee, Wis. "Weve used lasers too," he added, "but they are often unreliable and limited in color spectrum. Lasers are also very expensive and lose power in their fiberoptic cables."
The LED probe can be used for hours at a time and remains cool to the touch. The entire LED unit can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a laser.
Dr. Whelan has obtained Food and Drug Administration approval to use the LED probe in the removal of childrens brain tumors on a trial basis. Dr. Whelans technique to remove these tumors involves injecting the patients bloodstream with a drug called Photofrin II. Photofrin II attaches to the unwanted tissues and permeates into them, leaving the surrounding tissues unaffected. Dr. Whelan then places the new solid-state LED probe near the affected tissue to illuminate the tumor and activate the Photofrin II drug. Once activated by the light, the drug destroys the tumors cells, leaving the tender brain stem tissues virtually untouched.
"Were very happy to be a part of this innovative procedure," said Rose Allen, manager of the Space Product Development Office at the Marshall Center. "It is exciting to see how NASAs commercial space research results in benefits on Earth. Who would have thought that experiments searching for ways to improve agricultural products would lead to a medical procedure that saves childrens lives?" said Allen.
"The LED technology developed by NASA offers new hope to children with cancer," Dr. Whelan said. "Every one of our cases will be a critical case with no hopeful alternatives. We think this new probe will help give children with tumors a chance to live healthy, happy lives."
After Whelan concludes the FDA clinical trials, he anticipates full approval of what soon could be the operating technique of the future. Further research combining LEDs and promising new drugs are showing the possibilities of deeper tumor penetration with the probe, faster reaction times and shortened patient sensitivities to sunlight.
LEDs, as a low-energy light source were used on NASAs second United States Microgravity Laboratory Spacelab mission in October 1995, as part of the Astroculture Plant Growth Facility. The experiment was led by Dr. Raymond J. Bula of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics in Madison, Wis., a NASA Commercial Space Center. Commercial Space Centers, supported by NASA, pursue opportunities for continued growth of U.S. industry through the use of space.
"NASA has played a number of important roles," Dr. Whelan said. "NASA has funded the development of these LEDs for space research over the years," he added. "If it wasnt for the pre-existence of all that technology, it wouldnt have been possible for us to walk right in and use it to treat cancer."
NASAs Space Product Development Program works in partnership with the scientific community and commercial industry to support the 19 U.S. universities designated by NASA as Commercial Space Centers. The Space Products Development Office is part of the Microgravity Research Program at the Marshall Center.
NOTE TO EDITORS: Dr. Whelan is at Marshall Center today. He is available for in-person and phone interviews. Please call Steve Roy at (256)544-6535 for arrangements.
Three photos are available on the story. Photos may be obtained by calling Steve Roy.
Proposed cutlines include:
Simulation of surgical implantation of the Light Emitting Diodes probe at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The LED probe is approximately nine inches long and is about one-half-inch in diameter. The LED light source consists of 144 tiny pinhead-size diodes that are three times brighter than the sun. The probe was developed for photodynamic cancer therapy under a NASA Small Business Innovative Research program grant.
NASA Photo Emmett Given
The approximately nine-inch Light Emitting Diodes probe is being prepared for surgery at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The LED probe consists of 144 tiny pinhead-size diodes and is nine-inches long and about one-half-inch in diameter. The small balloon aids in even distribution of the light source. The LED probe can be used for hours at a time and remains cool to the touch. The probe was developed for photodynamic cancer therapy under a NASA Small Business Innovative Research program grant.
NASA Photo Emmett Given
Neurosurgeons and nurses conduct a simulation of surgical implantation of the Light Emitting Diodes probe at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The LED probe can be used for hours at a time and remains cool to the touch. The probe was developed for photodynamic cancer therapy under a NASA Small Business Innovative Research program grant.
NASA Photo Emmett Given