It sounds a bit like a medical treatment straight out of “Star Trek.” A beam of light runs over a patient’s skin, and that simple process produces relief from a disease.
But Miguel Tolentino doesn’t work on a starship or space station. He’s a health sciences doctoral candidate, with a focus on biomedical sciences, and his research is not science fiction.
Working with Jeri-Anne Lyons, associate dean and professor in the College of Health Sciences, Tolentino is investigating how sustained exposure to visible and infrared light lessens the ravages of multiple sclerosis, or MS. He’s playing an important role in the first such experiments involving human MS patients.
Infrared light can penetrate skin and affect structures lying underneath, and Lyons first thought of applying it to MS after talking to colleague Janis Eells, who had studied its retina-healing powers. Other researchers are exploring infrared treatments to help with diseases such as Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy.
To understand why Lyons thought it a promising approach for MS, it helps to know how MS operates. A person’s immune system – in the form of T-cells, with help from other immune cells – attacks and damages myelin, the insulating material that covers nerve fibers. This leads to a long list of neurological problems, including loss of vision, pain, countless muscular dysfunctions, problems with mood, feelings of pins and needles, loss of mobility – the list goes on.
MS treatments aim to lessen the damage done by T-cells, which are attracted to specific central nervous system areas by proteins called cytokines. Reducing cytokines should alleviate MS, and properly calibrated infrared light appears do to this, at least in a laboratory setting.
Lyons’ earlier research showed infrared light could protect nerve cells. She says part of infrared’s usefulness lies in how it alters mitochondria, the little power plants in cells. In MS, they can help to turn the tide of oxidative stress and inflammation that plagues sufferers.
Now, Tolentino is seeing firsthand how infrared treatments are affecting people with MS. For his project, patients are using the PainAway Post-Op laser made by Multi Radiance Medical, a small hand-held device that combines different wavelengths of light.
Tolentino receives blood taken from MS patients before and after the patients have applied light to themselves. He separates T-cells from the blood for evaluation, then he hits the cells directly with light to see how they’re affected, including what proteins they produce.
While Tolentino is investigating the immune system effects, a third member of the research project – Alexander Ng, an associate professor of exercise science at Marquette University – will follow the light’s effect on muscle function and fatigue.