Plasma medicine – how space science improves patient care
When cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev took the first plasma chamber onto the International Space Station (ISS) in 2001, to investigate complex dusty plasma crystals, nobody imagined that this would one day help the struggle against multi-drug resistant organisms. Yet next month, clinical trials of a cold plasma device starts in Germany.
Space station experiments resulted in smarter healing of wounds
Krikalev's experiments on the ISS were conducted under the guidance of Professor Gregor Morfill from the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE). Morfill took advantage of weightlessness in orbit to study the complex plasmas, which on Earth would have been rather difficult because gravity causes the plasma crystals to be flat.
The initial 2001 tests were followed by a long series of experiments on the ISS, with the most recent fourth version of the experiment still working on the space station.
This makes the plasma study experiment the longest-running in space and it also provided the impetus to develop cold plasma technology.
Plasma is usually a hot, electrically charged gas but MPE developed a method for generating ‘cold plasmas’ at room temperature.
Cold plasma has proved to be an extremely effective bactericidal agent and can also tackle fungi, viruses and spores. It is safe to touch, which makes it attractive for many applications.
Cold plasma – a partially ionized gas with a temperature of less than 40°C – induces small holes into bacterial cell membranes and destroys their DNA.
This is a fast, lethal (for the bacteria) and purely physical process.
Cells from humans, on the other hand, are not as easily damaged.
Thus the idea was born to use cold plasma against bacteria in infected wounds, without harming the patient.
Soon the first prototype of a cold plasma medical device was developed in collaboration with Morfill’s research group at the MPE. This was used for the treatment of infected chronic wounds such as crural and diabetic ulcers. In an extensive clinical trial with more than 370 patients, it was shown that cold plasma reduces the bacterial burden in infected wounds significantly, relieves pain and supports wound healing. No side effects were observed during this clinical trial.
Spin-off from MPE and support from ESA BIC Bavaria
To further develop the plasma technology for wound and skin disease treatment, the company `terraplasma medical` was set up.
Since the efficacy and safety of cold plasma therapy for the treatment of wounds had already been demonstrated, the primary challenge for terraplasma medical was to design a portable, battery-driven, user-friendly medical cold plasma device.
The development was supported by the ESA Business Incubation Centre (ESA BIC) Bavaria. During the incubation period at the centre, the first plasma prototype was developed to the final product. This small handheld and battery-operated plasma device for the treatment of wounds was named plasma care®.
The plasma care® uses a unique technology to produce cold atmospheric plasma, the so-called Surface Micro-Discharge (SMD) technology.
Battery-driven and easy to use, it has the size and weight of an old telephone handset.
Starting in May 2019, the plasma care® will be evaluated in its own clinical trial at multiple healthcare institutes in Germany.
Due to the promising data obtained from extensive pre-clinical studies, it is expected that the plasma treatment will be beneficial for patient care and in addition tackle the problem of multi-resistant bacteria, where effective solutions are increasingly rare.
About ESA’s Business Applications and Space Solutions
ESA Business Incubation Centre (BIC) Bavaria is part of ESA’s Business Applications and Space Solutions programme network of 20 ESA Business Incubation Centres, 15 ESA Innovation Partners and 14 ESA Ambassadors throughout Europe.
It co-funds projects and start-ups, while also offering technical and business support to companies that seek to deliver rapid innovation and to raise private investment.
Overall ESA spends €400 million a year on strengthening the competitiveness of European and Canadian companies in the global markets for both satellite communications and downstream applications.
The 20 ESA Business Incubation Centres (ESA BICs) form the largest ecosystem in the world for space-related entrepreneurship and have fostered over 700 start-ups throughout Europe. Spread across some 60 cities in 17 countries, more than 300 start-ups are currently under the two-year business incubation development booster programme, with another 180 joining yearly.