In a recent class titled Healthcare and Biotechnology in the 21st Century at the Thayer School of Engineering, Richard Satava, Professor of Surgery at the University of Washington, gave a lecture on upcoming healthcare and surgery innovations. Among one of these innovations was the new use of plasma energy in medicine.
According to the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, plasma energy contains “free energy carriers, i.e. ions and electrons that are neither bound to atoms or molecules nor to active radicals” (1). These “free carriers” include reactive nitrogen species and reactive oxygen species that can activate important mechanisms in the body. They target specific molecules such as prothrombin for blood coagulation, cytokines for killing bacteria, and angiogenesis for tissue regeneration. “These ions are responsible for turning these things on and off,” explained Satava, “but now we are able to create it and control it, which we have never been able to do before.” Because plasma energy can allow us to control bodily mechanisms such as wound healing, in the future, healing a wound could be as simple as exposing the area to a plasma energy light. Satava said, “Before, we had to just wait on nature to do things. Now that we control the energy, we can turn these [bodily mechanisms] on and turn them off whenever we want to.”
Furthermore, scientists have recently been able to generate plasma at as low as room temperatures, therefore, making this treatment totally painless. Satava called this “cold plasma.”
Another application of plasma energy in medicine is sterilization. Scientists also performed an experiment of the effects of plasma energy on bacteria. They “obtained a 106 reduction in the bacteria load,” and “the reduction persisted during subsequent incubation for at least two days” (1)
This corresponds to Satava’s statement, “There is no known biological agent that is resistant to thirty seconds of cold plasma.” Although plasma can kill any bacteria, it does so without harm to human tissue. He explained, “Cold plasma doesn’t kill other living cells because they have their DNA inside of a nucleus, and this nucleus protects them from low levels of energy.”
There are other applications to plasma energy in medicine to cancer and disease control. Since plasma medicine is a relatively new field of medicine, scientists will continue to find more applications for plasma energy as time goes on. “Everybody knows about plasma physics and plasma chemistry, but no one knows about plasma biology,” said Satava. “This is the beginning of a new idea moving forward. Controlling energy to be able to control life at the molecular level. We can do this. But it is up to you.”
1. Heinlin, J., et al. (2011). Plasma applications in medicine with a special focus on dermatology. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 25(1), 1-11.