A near infrared laser beam makes it easier for a nanoscale probe to pass through water (Image: Andrei Sommer et al)
It sounds too good to be true. Shining red light on skin or cells in a dish gives an instant energy boost that could help heal wounds, relieve pain and perhaps help male infertility and other medical conditions.
The curious healing effect has been known for decades – researchers have been– but why it works has been a mystery. It turns out the explanation could be simple and yet strange: the red light seems to alter the physical properties of water, which turbocharges the chemical reactions that provide a cell’s energy.
The revelation has come from work led byof the University of Ulm in Germany.
The effect on cells of near-infrared light, which has a wavelength of 670 nanometres, was first. The light causes mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouses, to produce more ATP, a compound that provides the cell’s energy.
Until now, the best explanation was that an important respiration enzyme calledis affected by the near-infrared energy, but we now know that it doesn’t absorb light at quite the right frequency.
Thinner than water
The work from Sommer’s team now points at the water within the cell. Normally the layer of water next to any solid object has high surface tension, making it viscous. “It’s like molasses,” says Sommer.
His team found that when surface layers of water are illuminated with the red light, it increases the distance between each water molecule, making the liquid become “runnier”.
Mitochondria are powered by an enzyme bound into their membranes. It spins like a molecular turbine, and being surrounded by runnier water should make it turn more easily, generating more ATP.
Because it is hard to measure water inside a living cell, the team measured the effect of near-infrared light on thin layers of water by examining the friction on a diamond probe as it pushed through water and into a metal block (see picture above).
Illuminating the water cut the force needed to push in the probe by 72 per cent.
“It’s highly significant,” saysof the Philipp University of Marburg in Germany. “This is the first explanation of how the light might work.”
Healing with light
Other research groups are investigating this phenomenon as a way to speed up the healing of skin wounds and to repair burns to the eye. It may also be able toin tissues underneath the skin. Others are investigating whether red light shone into mice’s heads using fibre optics .
A better understanding of how red light affects cells should make it easier to expand its medical uses, says Sommer. “If we start from an incorrect model then everything is trial and error.”
One of the next applications could be in helping couples undergoing IVF because of problems with male fertility. Some men’s sperm do not have enough energy to fertilise an egg in a lab, even though they only have to swim 1 millimetre to reach it, says IVF doctorof the Fertility Centre in Ulm.
Gagsteiger has previously investigated other ways of giving sperm more oomph,– which does make them swim faster but also seems to be toxic.
Gagsteiger is now starting tests of irradiating sperm with the near-infrared light before fertilisation. “We hope this will increase the chance of the sperm finding the eggs,” he says.
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