The Latest

USU researcher is laser-focused on new methods of healing

There is a dog with sunglasses getting laser treatment from nurses
By Christopher Austin

Lasers were once limited to the world of science fiction. However since their invention in 1960, they have become commonplace in everyday life. Lasers are used in computer devices, communication and astronomy, for many military purposes and medical applications. Medical uses of lasers range from surgery to dental and dermatologic and aesthetic applications.

A rapidly expanding medical application of lasers is finding how exposure to different wavelengths of light can be used to treat injury and sickness, a field of study known as photobiomodulation. This is a field where one scientist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) is discovering new ways to heal complex injuries.

“Photobiomodulation is the process by which endogenous proteins within cells can absorb light of various wavelengths and change cellular function,” said Dr. Juanita Anders, professor in the Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Genetics at USU. “When a cell is injured or sick, it alters its normal cellular processes, such as its energy production, metabolism and its inflammatory state. When light, or photons, are used to treat the injured or diseased cells and tissues, light is absorbed by endogenous proteins called chromophores. Once light is absorbed, it causes changes in mitochondrial activity in the cells, and leads to changes in the RNA, DNA, and protein expression. In simplest terms: it alters the cell in a way to increase its energy and metabolism, and normalizes the cell.”

This is an image of a laser machine with a diagram of each of its parts
A precision light delivery system currently used in Dr. Anders lab.
Single or multiple wavelengths of light at a broad range of doses can be used on cells or stem cells in culture.
(Image credit: courtesy of Dr. Anders)
Anders has worked with a number of companies through cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) in the development of clinical lasers. She currently has a CRADA with LiteCure LLC on optimization of treatment parameters for different wavelengths of light for various medical and veterinarian applications. This laser is also used by many professional and collegiate sports teams.

Her research into the field has led to patents for USU, through the Henry Jackson Foundation, for the use of lasers to treat spinal cord injuries. By focusing light onto the injured area through the skin, she observed that the cascading injury response and tissue inflammation were altered, causing an inhibition of scar formation within the spinal cord, allowing axons to regrow through the injury site and improve functional outcome. Another patent she helped secure was for the use of light in promoting stem cell division and differentiation.

“If you want to grow stem cells, you put them in a soup with various growth factors to get them to proliferate. And if you want them to change to a certain type of cell, you must add yet other factors that push them into differentiation,” Anders said. “So I started thinking: instead of adding factors, why not just use light?” She found that the addition of light caused the progenitor cells to produce the factors they needed to grow and change into the desired cells on their own.

While research has shown that light can have a multitude of beneficial effects on many injuries and mental diseases including depression, it is currently only approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of muscle and skeletal pain, hair loss, and lymphedema. This is, in part, because photobiomodulation is still a contested field. Its origins lie back in the 1980s when a researcher in Hungary noticed that exposure to light resulted in promoting hair growth in test subjects. But, because this research was initially performed in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War, Western scientists were reluctant to accept it. On top of this, many small companies try to capitalize on the unknown aspects of the science by producing products that claim to be a cure-all for a variety of diseases, but without the research to support these claims. However, photobiomodulation is widely used in veterinary clinical practice.

There is a woman with sunglasses on getting laser treatment on her shoulder
While lasers have been observed as a means to promote wound
healing and cellular regeneration, they are currently only
approved for use in humans as a means of relieving
musculoskeletal pain and promoting wellness. (Image courtesy
of Dr. Brian Pryor, President of LiteCure LLC.)
Photobiomodulation is FDA approved for use on humans for wellness and basic pain control, though, which means that there are a variety of legitimate devices out there designed to help prevent and recover from injury.
“It’s adopted on some levels, but for mainstream medicine, part of the problem is there’s not an insurance code, so when people go in to use this therapy, they have to be willing to pay for it,” she continued.

Anders is currently focusing on ways that photobiomodulation can be used to treat neuropathic pain and mental disorders such as depression. She hopes that her research into pain management could offer a viable treatment that could help reduce opiate abuse in the U.S.

Anders served as the president of the North American Association for Photobiomodulation Therapy from 2002 to 2004, and was president of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery from 2014 to 2015. She also helped establish the Photobiomodulation Technical Group for the Optical Society of America and now serves as its director.

“I love this technology. I’ve been told that I probably have some of the thickest skin on the planet because when I got into this, initially the field was underdeveloped. I did my first experiment and could change the rate at which neurons grew and I just immediately became a fan,” Anders said. “It’s been a long road to really establish myself as an authority in this world.”