Scientists study if light can be harnessed to kill coronavirus

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TORONTO – Nearly a century ago, scientists discovered that light could kill the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. Since then, light therapy has become a treatment for babies with jaundice, to remove harmful bacteria from surgical patients, and to disinfect hospital rooms.

Now, researchers are drawing on decades of light therapy science to determine whether the new coronavirus could be treated or destroyed the same way through the power of light.

Light therapy became a hot topic in late April when US President Donald Trump touted an experimental light probe to treat coronavirus infections in the lungs. At the time, the technology was still in the early stages of development.

But the point is, some scientists say there is merit in studying light therapy as a possible tool against COVID-19.

“I’m all for looking at this technology and seeing what diseases it can be used for patients,” said Guillermo Tearney, co-director of the Mass General Bigham Center for COVID Innovation.

“It’s a relatively safe technology, easy to implement, so why not try and see if it might be of help to patients with COVID.”

Several studies are proposed or underway to test various forms of light, using different ways of delivering it into the body for coronavirus infections, including one here in Canada.

Dr. Roy Tingley, a researcher in Nova Scotia, is leading a trial that uses a two-pronged device called a Vielight, which clips onto a patient’s nostril and emits a red light. The second part passes over the breastbone and emits infrared light.

The plan is to test 280 patients with COVID-19 in Ontario and the United States to see whether or not it helps them heal faster. Half of the participants will receive Vielight treatment and the other half will receive standard therapy.

“We theoretically assume that this will actually speed up recovery and prevent patients who might otherwise end up in the hospital from making it to the hospital,” Dr. Tingley told CTV News.

The trial will study patients for 30 days and ask them to track their symptoms in a daily survey after twice-daily treatment with Vielight. After six months, the data will be reviewed to see if the method has helped.

Studies suggest that certain forms of light appear to destroy coronaviruses in the lab.

Scientists believe that light therapy affects cells by producing a reaction that allows them to function more normally. In the case of COVID-19, this may help to moderate the overreaction of the immune system that leads to often fatal “cytokine storms”.

“So what light therapy can do is activate pathways that would prevent cells from dying, which is also helpful when you have something like COVID-19 destroying cells all over the body,” says Michael Hamblin, former associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

All of this is still largely theoretical as much of the research on COVID-19 is in the early stages of investigation.

The light therapy touted by Trump is also still in development. According to a clinical trials website, it is to be tested on five COVID-19 patients on ventilators to see if it will reduce viral load and the severity of the disease.

One caveat: No form of light therapy has been shown to be effective against COVID-19. Some forms of ultraviolet light can be harmful and can trigger sunburn and possibly cause melanoma.

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