- Creve Coeur, IL
- Jen Christensen
- HOI19 (www.hoinews.com)
Mucositis is an inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract. The condition is a common side effect of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer. Although it can occur anywhere between the mouth and the anus, it’s most commonly seen in the mouth and throat. The organization, Cancer Supportive Care Programs, estimates oral mucositis affects up to 40 percent of chemotherapy patients and up to 50 percent of those receiving radiation and chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy target rapidly-producing cells. While cancer cells rapidly reproduce, so do those lining the digestive tract. Since cancer treatments can’t differentiate between malignant and healthy cells, both types are affected. As the digestive tract cells are destroyed, the lining breaks down, causing inflammation, irritation and swelling.
Initially, the tissues inside the mouth become pale and dry. Painful red sores develop on the inside of the cheeks, gums and throat. The tongue may swell, causing problems with eating, swallowing and talking. Accompanying side effects of cancer treatment, like nausea and vomiting, may aggravate the ability to eat, leading to nutritional deficiencies, dehydration, weight loss, loss of muscle mass and increased susceptibility to infection. In addition, cancer treatments may slow the ability of the mucosal tissue to heal, compounding the problem. In some cases, the symptoms become so severe, cancer treatment may need to be stopped.
Shedding Light on a New Treatment
Currently, there are few adequate treatments for mucositis. Health care workers try to reduce the risk of developing symptoms by encouraging rigorous oral hygiene and use of mouth rinses and moisturizers.
Now, researchers are testing a new treatment for mucositis, using LED (light-emitting diode) lights. LED lights were originally developed for NASA to use in plant growth experiments in space. The light energy is absorbed by cell mitochondria and used as a source of energy. Harry T. Whelan, M.D., a Pediatric Neurologist with the Medical College of Wisconsin says, in the body, the LED lights provide extra energy to the damaged cells, helping them to regenerate and heal.
The LED device contains hundreds of tiny chips, each about the size and weight of a grain of sand. They produce light in the near infrared range, which can penetrate into the deep tissue. Thus, all equipment is kept outside the body. The treatment can be aimed from different directions to avoid over-exposing surface tissue. And since there is no heat involved, only light, patients don’t feel any pain during therapy.
LED therapy was used in an earlier study of pediatric bone marrow transplant patients undergoing ablative therapy to destroy their own bone marrow in preparation for a transplant. Normally, up to 90 percent of such patients develop mucositis. With LED therapy, the rate of mucositis was only 53 percent.
Currently, the LED light therapy is being tested at the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the University of Alabama for pediatric and adult cancer patients. Half the participants will receive treatment and half will receive a placebo. Researchers are hopeful LED therapy will reduce the rates of mucositis, improving the ability of patients to swallow, eat and drink.
LED therapy is not yet approved by the FDA for mucositis. Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin are also testing the treatment for other conditions caused by a cellular energy crisis, like Parkinson’s disease or bone fractures. In the future, the treatment may also be used to activate chemotherapy drugs that have been injected into the body.