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NASA uses light to soothe chemo side effects

Originally developed to explore plant growth on space shuttles, NASA's far-red/near-infrared LED treatment, using a device called WARP 75, helps reduce pain from chemo and radiation treatments.

Demonstrating the use of a WARP 75 device in the Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy Unit at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.

Originally developed in the early 1990s to promote plant growth on board space shuttles, the light technology behind NASA's Astroculture 3 is now being repurposed to help soothe the painful side effects that can result from chemotherapy and radiation treatment in patients with bone marrow and stem cell transplants.

The treatment device, called WARP 75, uses High Emissivity Aluminiferous Luminescent Substrate, or HEALS, which lets LED chips function at their maximum irradiance--the equivalent light energy of 12 suns from each of the device's 288 grain-of-salt-sized LEDs--without emitting heat.

Researchers studied the effects of the technology to treat oral mucositis--a painful side effect of chemotherapy and radiation treatment--in 20 children and 60 adults during a two-year double-blind and placebo-controlled clinical trial.

Nurses delivered the treatment by simply holding the WARP 75 (or a placebo treatment designed to have no real effect) near the outside of each patient's left or right cheek and neck area for 88 seconds a day over 14 days at the start of each patient's bone marrow or stem cell transplant.

Throughout each two-week treatment, clinicians assessed each patient's mouth, while the patients filled out pain assessment forms. NASA is now reporting with 96 percent certainty that the reductions in pain in the high-risk group are the direct result of the LED treatment.

Ron Ignatius, founder and chairman of Wisconsin-based Quantum Devices, developed the WARP 75 in collaboration with NASA, whose Innovative Partnerships Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center funded the clinical trial.

NASA is well known for its spinoffs. The organization even devotes a Web site to technologies it developed for space but that now find uses here on Earth, including such notables as barcodes, joysticks, smoke detectors, cordless power tools, and invisible braces.

The WARP 75 is now undergoing Food and Drug Administration premarket approval.