NASA Space Technology

Shines Light on Healing

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." 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 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.