The idea of healing using light energy sounds very "new-age", but the medical profession are beginning to understand that there isan incredible healing power hidden within the light spectrum.

The use of light, especially ultraviolet light, to treat medical conditions is known as "phototherapy". Natural sunlight has been recommended by physicians to treat certain skin disorders for thousands of years, but it is now known that it is the ultraviolet part of the radiation produced by the sun that is used in phototherapy, in particular the ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) wavelengths.

Chukuka S. Enwemeka is an internationally known researcher in the field of phototherapy and is also the dean of University of Wisconsin and Milwaukee College of Health Sciences. He is currently leading a research project in Brazil and at UWM to study the use of near-infrared and blue light to heal wounds and clear topical infections.

The research team worked with a diabetic Brazilian lady suffering from a foot ulcer that had been unresponsive to any previous form of treatment. Her medical team were keen to try a new approach, and so her afflicted foot was subjected to a course of NIR light doses. The results were almost miraculous: in just a few days she was out of pain, and the wound had completely healed within a matter of weeks.

All forms of visible and non-visible light are arrayed on a scale, or spectrum, according to their wavelengths; the visible portion of the scale, known as the electromagnetic spectrum. In the study, Enwemeka and his team have proved that two kinds of light have beneficial properties: visible blue light in the electromagnetic spectrum and near-infrared (NIR), a form of invisible light in the range beyond red. Each form of light affects the action of the same enzyme, cytochrome C oxidase, which is found in the energy center, or mitochondria, of body cells. Each light acts on the enzyme in a totally different way, however; NIR light stimulates cell repair by causing cytochrome oxidase to bind with oxygen which switches on protectors and activates cell metabolism, whereas the blue light appears to create a toxic environment that helps to heal wounds by killing bacteria that cause infection.

Enwemeka’s research indicated that blue light wavelength can even clear stubborn infections such as MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant "superbug" form of Staphylococcus aureus. He demonstrated that one dose of irradiation killed as much as 92 percent of two pervasive strains of MRSA, and has had positive results with antibiotic-resistant MRSA. The study showed that the blue light acts on the mitochondrial enzyme site, but allows cytochrome oxidase to bind with nitric oxide, a free radical that is elevated in the immune response, to form a combination that poisons harmful organisms.

Enwemeka’s study prompted other similar studies to be conducted at the same university, including a project to investigate the effects of light on diseases such as Multiple sclerosis (MS). Multiple sclerosis (MS)is a degenerative disease causing progressive paralysis by destroying nerve cells and the spinal cord, and it can affect vision, balance and cognitive ability. Enwemeka suggested to a colleague who studies the role of the immune response in MS, Jeri-Anne Lyon, that the disease may respond to exposure to NIR light.

"Never in a million years did I think it would help," says Lyons, who is an associate professor of biomedical sciences at UWM.

Lyons was stunned when rodents with early onset MS symptoms improved after treatment with exposure to NIR light for a week as was another UWM professor, Janis Eells, who used NIR therapy on rats to treat a form of blindness caused by poisoning. This condition was thought to be permanent, but a series of experiments proved repeatedly that certain doses of NIR light allowed lab animals to regain their sight.

Lyons determined that the right timing and dosage appeared to be critical in NIR therapy, but it was no easy task to work out the optimum dosage of the phototherapy, and results varied dramatically according to the amount of light used. For example, the study revealed that 670 nanometer (nm) and 830 nm light were beneficial, but 730 nm was not.

"We’re not talking about white light [all wavelengths in the visible spectrum combined] as treatment, but only certain wavelengths, at a certain intensity, for a certain amount of time," says Lyons. "Like ingested medication, it’s all about the dose."

Lyons also discovered how the positive results were achieved: light exposure weakened the molecules responsible for disease progression, and strengthened those involved with repair.

The studies revealed important information about phototherapy’s potential to manage the effects of aging and age-related diseases. Damage to the mitochondria plays a key role in aging and cancer, as it results in an excess of harmful "free radicals"; these are typically highly reactive oxygen species molecules associated with oxidative stress in the body, and can cause disruptions in the normal cell signalling processes.

"It’s why we try to put antioxidants into our diets," says Lyons, "to fight that process."

Free radicals can be generated due to inflammation caused by the body’s immune response. The researchers found that after an injury or illness triggered the immune response, the NIR light reset the mitochondria so they functioned normally again.

"NIR reduces inflammation," says Eells. "If you can tone down the inflammation in an eye disease like retinitis pigmentosa, you slow the progression of the disease. Chronic non-healing wounds are ‘stuck’ in the inflammatory phase of wound healing. The light removes that obstacle."

In conjunction with Tim Kern at Case Western Reserve, Eells has been working on treating animal models of diabetic retinopathy with NIR light, and so far it has been possible to slow progression and reduce the severity of the condition. Kern hopes to initiate a clinical trial in the near future.

Enwemeka is leading a research effort in Brazil and at UWM for six years, and he hopes this will ultimately lead to clinical use of NIR and blue light in the U.S. for the treatment of wounds, though
currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not sanctioned the use of blue light in treating wounds, or NIR light for conditions other than wounds and pain.

"It’s considered alternative therapy in Western medicine. It seems too simple for people to accept," says Lyons

The FDA requires proven results from large-scale clinical studies before approving phototherapy for wider use, and Enwemeka and Harry Whelan, a UWM alumnus and physician-researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin, are focused on achieving this goal.

"To see people who have not had relief see their wounds heal and not return is very touching," says Enwemeka.

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