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.
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
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.
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.”
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.