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It all started with plants in space

As any astronaut can attest, if you’re going to nick yourself in space, you’d better be patient. The speed of healing is notoriously slow in low-oxygen environments—with one intriguing exception. Space Station astronauts working on plant experiments involving infrared light noticed that their open wounds actually healed faster.

Henshel and students Back on Planet Earth—at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs to be specific—researchers are determined to learn more about infrared light, not only its power to heal but, just as critically, whether there are side effects when it is used.

“If infrared light is going to be used generically, you want to make sure that it’s not going to adversely affect a developing embryo if it’s used on pregnant women,” says Diane Henshel, SPEA professor and lead researcher on the infrared project.

Chicken and egg
To understand infrared’s impact on development, a group of SPEA researchers headed by Henshel treated early-stage chicken embryos with a daily dose of light to see how these developing chickens would react to infrared therapy. What kind of problems did the group find? Not many. There was no increase in mortality rates; in fact, there was actually a small decrease. Even more compelling, the treated chicks weighed more and hatched sooner than the untreated ones.

The group’s experiment grew out of a discussion between Henshel and Janis Eells, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and long-time friend of Henshel. Eells has been studying the health effects of infrared light and enthusiastically shared what she’d discovered. “When I heard about it,” says Henshel, “I pointed out the overlap in our research, and told her I thought this could be a really cool study. After we agreed to collaborate, I asked my students if they wanted to participate. They were all enthusiastic.”

Eells helped with the start-up by lending two LED lights and providing protocols and training for some of the assays, or tests. The third collaborator is in the IU Medical School. Professor John Watkins and his lab assistant, Ruth Sanders, trained SPEA students Ronnie Yeager and Jinhwan Lim to run some of the biochemical assays being used in the experiment, and is providing the additional laboratory space and equipment needed for the biochemical studies.

Limitless potential
While scientists are only starting to explore these questions, another group has known about the healing power of the light for decades. Horse trainers routinely use infrared light to accelerate the healing of wounded horses, though they didn’t know exactly how it worked.

But it wasn’t until observations by NASA on infrared’s acceleration of healing that the light really began garnering attention. The Navy started using infrared on its submarines—another low-oxygen environment—about five years ago and then the light made its way onto the battlefield, where Army medics now use it on wounded soldiers.

The applications are potentially limitless. Hospitals use the light to help cancer patients cope with one painful side effect of treatment, a form of mouth ulcers called mucositis that can make the body more vulnerable to outside infection. The infrared light heals these ulcers more quickly and helps increase the success of bone marrow transplants by healing wounds that make patients more likely to get infections.

The light may also be used in the future to treat blindness and glaucoma, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, and cardiovascular disease. It may even be able to slow down the aging process. The reason it works? One explanation, says Henshel, is that the light increases the amount of available energy in cells, and it is energy that helps cells heal. It isn’t surprising, then, that researchers believe infrared light may actually replace surgery and certain prescription drugs with no long-term side effects.

Earlier this year, Henshel’s group presented their initial findings to a conference of the Society of Toxicology. “They thought we were really on to something,” says Yeager. “They thought our results were promising.”

They’re so promising, in fact, that the Photomedicine and Laser Surgery Journal has accepted three of the group’s papers for publication.

Encouraged by the response from toxicology professionals, SPEA students will embark on a new set of experiments to determine infrared’s effect on particular cells in the body. They may even continue to pursue experimenting with the infrared light when they graduate. “I think there are so many possibilities with this that it’s mind-boggling when you start thinking about all the applications that are possible,” said SPEA student Deborah Millsap. “It’s incredible.”

“I think it’s only just the beginning because there are so many questions asked right now and we can only find so many answers in the time that we are here,” says Yeager. “I think we are going to leave behind a nice road map, but hopefully the next group of students can fill in the gaps.”

Diane Henshel is an associate professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, IUB. She focuses on the sublethal health effects of environmental pollutants, especially on pollutant effects on the developing organism. Her teaching interests lie in the fields of developmental toxicology, risk assessment, and risk communications. Professor Henshel received her Ph.D. in neurobiology from Washington University in 1987.