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ODU Researchers Report Use of Plasma Pencil Against Fibrils Associated with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Diseases

Laroussi and Greene

The cold plasma pencil that Old Dominion University electrical engineer Mounir Laroussi developed a few years ago looks like a small light saber and has been proposed for uses ranging from teeth whitening to wound healing. New studies, however, are raising the instrument's profile.

The plasma pencil might be a valuable tool in the fight against Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, according to research reported by four ODU scientists and engineers.

Laroussi, professor of electrical engineering, and engineering graduate researcher Erdinc Karakas have teamed with Lesley Greene, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and chemistry graduate researcher Agatha Munyanyi to conduct the studies reported last month in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

Their paper got further notice when it was picked up by the Oct. 15 Virtual Journal of Biological Physics Research. The editors of the virtual journal deemed this work at ODU to be an important example of instrumentation development.

The ODU researchers report findings of preliminary experiments in which the two-inch jet of plasma emitted by the pencil is directed at laboratory samples of amyloid fibrils, the strings of proteins that are associated with neurodegenerative diseases. "We report initial studies that indicate that low-temperature atmospheric-pressure plasma can break amyloid fibrils into smaller units," the authors write in the paper's abstract. "This avenue of research may facilitate the development of a plasma-based medical treatment" for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Plasmas found in outer space or within a vacuum almost devoid of gaseous pressure - such as in neon lights or television monitors - are super-agitated soups of atomic particles that are very hot and hard to control. Cold plasmas can be produced in normal atmospheric conditions, with ultra-fast pulses of electricity exciting only the relatively light electrons of the base gases, not the heavier atomic components. Because of this, normal human tissue can be exposed to cold plasma jets without sustaining thermal damage, yet the same jets have been shown to destroy germ cells.

Now the jets have also been shown to shatter amyloid fibrils.

The fibrils formed by the protein alpha-synuclein cause a decrease in the production of dopamine in the portion of the brain that controls movement. A lack of dopamine results in the major symptoms of Parkinson's: rigidity due to muscles constantly contracted; resting tremors; postural instability; and slowness in initiating movement.

The researchers focused on alpha-synuclein-based fibrils in solution contained in tubes or on slides. These samples were hit by the plasma jet for varying lengths of time. Inspection using electron transmission microscopy showed that fibrils exposed for six minutes were shattered into much smaller pieces.

Other techniques recently reported in published research have been shown to break up the fibrils, including laser irradiation and ultrasound, but Laroussi believes the plasma jet treatment would be more practical.

Still, he admitted that lots of work lies ahead to determine just how the plasma works against the fibrils, and how the cold plasma might affect brain matter. The latter studies, of course, would be required before the procedure could be done on a live human. He said he is aware of other studies showing that shattered fibrils may have a toxic quality and raising the possibility that shattered fibrils are able to re-form into long strands. "There is still a lot to be done and investigated," he said, "but our preliminary work is promising."

Greene presented the research during the summer to the 37th International Conference on Plasma Science that Laroussi chaired in Norfolk. In February, the ODU team will also present the research at the Medicine Meets Virtual Reality conference in Newport Beach, Calif. The MMVR meeting, begun in 1992, is a gathering of scientists, physicians, engineers, educators and futurists who want to explore how technological advances can spur biomedical innovation.

Laroussi said a portion of MMVR is called NextMed, and that one of this session's focuses for the 2011 meeting will be plasma medicine. "This is an important step for us, to get our work before the medical community, whereas in the past we have mostly been working within the electrical engineering and physics communities."

In September and October Laroussi was in France and Germany to present his work on plasma medicine at several conferences and institutions. At the International Conference on Plasma Medicine in Germany, Gayle McCombs, an ODU associate professor of dental hygiene presented research she has done with Laroussi on dental applications of cold plasma. "It was well-received," Laroussi said.

Other collaborators in the cold plasma-dental therapies work are Michele Darby, chair, professor and eminent scholar, School of Dental Hygiene, as well as Wayne Hynes, professor and interim chair, Department of Biological Sciences.

Also at the International Conference on Plasma Medicine, Laroussi was one of three researchers worldwide to receive the inaugural International Society of Plasma Medicine Award.

This article was posted on: November 15, 2010

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