For the first time, surgeons have used a special lighting technology, developed for space-based commercial plant growth research on NASA’s Space Shuttle, in two successful operations to treat brain cancer on Earth.
"A young woman operated on in May has fully recovered with no complications and no evidence of the tumor coming back," said Dr. Harry Whelan, a pediatric neurologist at the Medical Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and professor of neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, also in Milwaukee. "A young man who underwent surgery in August is still recovering, but everything looks great, and thus far there is no evidence of the tumor reoccurring."
For the treatment technique called Photodynamic Therapy, a surgeon uses tiny pinhead-size Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) -- a source releasing long wavelengths of light -- to activate light-sensitive, tumor-treating drugs.
To ensure other promising LED medical applications are investigated, NASA recently selected a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research proposal for negotiation with Quantum Devices Inc. of Barneveld, Wis. -- the company that developed LEDs for commercial plant growth investigations on the Space Shuttle. When the Phase II contract is awarded, Quantum Devices will receive $600,000 to continue promising research begun under the Phase I Small Business Innovation Research contract that was just completed.
"NASA was pleased to fund the first phase of the research leading to these two successful surgeries," said Helen Stinson, Marshall’s manager of the Small Business Innovative Research program, which awarded the grant. The program is part of NASA’s Technology Transfer Department at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "We’re happy to fund Quantum as it continues to explore cutting-edge medical uses for the LEDs," Stinson added.
"It has been very exciting to work with NASA and Dr. Whelan to design the LED probe," said Ronald Ignatius, president of Quantum Devices. "Because of Quantum Device’s development of the LED plant lighting for NASA’s Commercial Space Center at the University of Wisconsin, the technology already existed. Now, NASA funding is helping us adapt this technology to treat cancer."
In May, 20-year-old Katie Pedersen underwent surgery with the LED probe. She had turned to NASA-sponsored technology when she was out of options. She had endured six surgeries over 10 years, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatments traditionally used to treat cancer. But her aggressive cancer kept coming back.
"We are very hopeful that the LED’s long, cool wavelengths of light were able to penetrate wide and deep enough to get rid of the tumor for good," said Whelan.
Laser light has been used for this type of surgery in the past, but the LED light illuminates through all nearby tissues, reaching parts of the tumor that shorter wavelengths of laser light cannot. The new probe is also safer because the longer wavelengths of light are cooler than the shorter wavelengths of laser light, making the LED less likely to injure normal brain tissue near the tumor, explained Whelan.
The LED light source, consisting of 144 tiny diodes, is compact -- the size of a small human finger about one-half-inch in diameter -- and mechanically more reliable than lasers and other light sources used to treat cancer. The entire light source and cooling system is only the size of a briefcase. The LED probe can be used for hours at a time while still remaining cool to the touch, and can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a laser.
Before the surgeries, Whelan and his colleagues performed experiments whose results indicate that when special tumor-fighting drugs are illuminated with LEDs, the tumors are more effectively destroyed than with conventional surgery.
Whelan has Food and Drug Administration approval to use the LED probe on a trial basis in the removal of children’s brain tumors. To remove these tumors, Whelan’s technique involves injecting the patient’s bloodstream with a drug called PHOTOFRINâ , a light-activated drug, currently approved in the United States for the treatment of certain lung and esophageal cancers. PHOTOFRINâ was discovered at the Roswell Park Memorial Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., and is being developed by QLT PhotoTherapeutics Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
PHOTOFRINâ attaches to and permeates unwanted tissues, leaving surrounding tissues unaffected. Whelan then places the new solid-state LED probe near the affected tissue to illuminate the tumor and activate PHOTOFRINâ . Once activated by the light, the drug destroys the tumor’s cells, leaving the tender brain stem tissues virtually untouched.
The LEDs have been used on seven Space Shuttle flights inside the ASTROCULTUREÔ facility, a plant growth chamber developed by the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a NASA Commercial Space Center. The Commercial Space Centers are part of the Space Product Development Program, managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which provides U.S. industry the opportunity to perform experiments in space with future profit potential and real-life applications on Earth.
"This technology has been successfully used to further commercial research in crop growth," said Mark Nall, manager of NASA's Space Product Development Program, part of the Microgravity Research Program Office at the Marshall Center. "Now, a small business has taken the technology and adapted it for an entirely different role to help people here on Earth. With the help of NASA's Small Business Innovative Research Program, Quantum Devices and the Medical College of Wisconsin have turned commercial space technology into a new medical device."