NASA chemotherapy technology
Special High Emissivity Aluminiferous Luminescent Substrate, or HEALS technology developed for NASA's commercial plant growth experiments in space is helping to treat cancer and save lives on Earth. NASA/Higginbotham

Medical researchers have developed a new technology that will help cancer patients stave off the effects of chemotherapy.

Called High Emissivity Aluminiferous Luminescent Substrate, or HEALS, it's a chip covered with hundreds of sand-grain sized light emitting diodes, each of which emits energy equivalent to 12 times that of the sun. The lights are in a small box that is held near the patient's head, while the light, which is in the far red and infrared part of the spectrum, shines on the skin.

The technology was originally developed by NASA for plant growth experiments on space shuttle flights. However, researchers at the Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy Unit at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital found a different use for it: reducing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment in bone marrow and stem cell transplant patients.

The researchers conducted a two-year clinical trial where they treated cancer patients undergoing bone marrow or stem cell transplants with the HEALS device. HEALS was used to treat oral mucositis -- a common and painful side effect of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Using this technology as a healing agent was phenomenal, said Dr. Donna Salzman, clinical trial principal investigator and director of clinical services and education at the Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy Unit, in a statement. The HEALS device was well tolerated with no adverse affects to our bone marrow and stem cell transplant patients.

The researchers deducted that there was a 96 percent chance the improvement in pain of those in the high-risk patient group came from the HEALS treatment.

Along with its effectiveness, the researchers say it's cost-effective. The HEALS device itself is less expensive than a day at the hospital and a proactive therapy for symptoms of mucositis, which itself has side effects. Further, the HEALS device could lead to better nutrition since eating on chemotherapy treatment can be difficult with painful mouth and throat sores. It also may mean less narcotic use to treat mouth and throat pain and an increase in patient morale.

The HEALS device is also known as the WARP 75 light delivery system because it lets LED chips function at their maximum irradiancy without emitting heat. It was originally developed by a Barneveld, Wis., company called Quantum Devices Inc., to develop Astroculture 3. Astroculture 3 was a plant growth chamber on the space shuttle that used infrared HEALS technology. Quantum adapted the HEALS technology for medical use.

Quantum Devices and its medical partners have been able to take a space technology and adapt it for an entirely different application to significantly help people here on Earth, said Glenn Ignatius, president of Quantum Devices, in a statement.

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