Nov. 10, 1997 Special lighting technology developed for NASA's commercial plant growth experiments in space may help treat cancerous brain tumors in children.
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 can be 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.
Dr. Harry Whelan of the Medical College of Milwaukee, WI, has obtained Food and Drug Administration approval to use the LED probe for the treatment of children's brain tumors on a trial basis. Dr. Whelan's therapy involves injecting the patient's 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 tumor's cells, leaving the normal brain tissues virtually untouched.
"This new probe," said Dr. Whelan, "illuminates through all nearby tissues. We've used lasers too, but they are often unreliable and limited in color spectrum. Lasers also are 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.
The feasibility of using LEDs in cancer treatment was demonstrated through a NASA Small Business Innovation Research contract managed by the Technology Transfer Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL. The small business, Quantum Devices, Inc., of Banreveld, WI, developed the LEDs as a light source for a chamber used by NASA to conduct plant research in space. These LEDs now form the tip of a new nine-inch neural probe.
"We're very happy to be a part of this innovative procedure," said Rose Allen, manager of the Space Product Development Office at Marshall. "It is exciting to see how NASA's 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 could save children's 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 new promising drugs is showing the possibilities of deeper tumor penetration with the probe, faster reaction times and shortened patient sensitivities to sunlight.
LED's low-energy technology flew on the second United States Microgravity Laboratory Spacelab mission in October 1995, as part of the Astroculture Plant Growth Facility. That experiment was led by Dr. Raymond J. Bula of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics in Madison, WI, 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 wasn't for the pre-existence of all that technology, it wouldn't have been possible for us to walk right in and use it to treat cancer."
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