Cold Plasmas Assist in Wound Healing

Side view of a plasma crystal in the laboratory. Dust particles are suspended in an argon plasma above a high-frequency electrode (bottom). The horizontal field of view is 2 cm.

Credits: Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Expedition 30 flight engineer, inspects the Plasma Kristall Experiment laboratory, enclosed in black housing, in its new home in the Poisk Mini-Research Module 2 of the International Space Station.

Credits: RKK-Energia

In recent years, health experts have seen a dramatic rise in super-strains of bacteria that can survive the strongest antibiotics in medicine’s arsenal.

Technology developed for performing research on the ​ISS has helped develop plasma-based devices to fight superbugs on Earth.

Cold plasma therapy provides a new way to keep hospital patients safe from infections. This technology spin-off from space hardware knocks out bacteria without damaging human tissue, thereby accelerating the process of wound healing. Cold plasma has many practical applications––from food hygiene, to treatment of different kinds of skin diseases, to the purification of water in developing regions. Fundamental research in orbit led to the miniaturization of devices that can be operated at room temperature.

Complex plasma research has been taking place onboard the ISS since 2001. This research has improved our fundamental knowledge and provided tremendous insights in complex plasma research and how we can control complex plasmas (i.e., plasmas mixed with fine particles). The weightless environment is ideal for this area of research by allowing astronauts to produce macroscopic analogues of atomic structure in gases and liquids and observe phase transitions such as melting or freezing.

A DC plasma source was specifically designed for space research into complex plasma and is incorporated in the ​ESA​/​ROSCOSMOS​ ​PK-4 instrument currently on the ISS. On Earth, the resulting increased know-how in plasma technology has allowed the further development of different applications. Because plasma is a charged gas, it can permeate many materials, and spreads evenly and quickly. It can disinfect surfaces, and has been proven to neutralize drug-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus within seconds.

In addition to bacteria, cold plasmas have the properties needed to safely and efficiently inactivate fungi, viruses, spores and odor molecules. In more than 3,500 examples in several clinical trials, physicians found plasmas can disinfect chronic wounds and help wounds heal faster. This revolution in healthcare has many application areas: medical technology, water treatment, odor management and hygiene. Submarine crews and staff working in isolation for long periods could also benefit from cold plasma treatments.

This technology might one day make it into our homes. [This publication was originally published in 2015. Since then it has and you are looking at a company that has the products!] In space, it can provide huge benefits for astronaut health such as treating skin ailments, or for hygiene and the purification of water.

The percentage of people affected by chronic wounds is rising, especially among the aging population. A start-up company, terraplasma medical GmbH, is now focused on developing a small ergonometric hospital treatment device for chronic wounds. The first cold plasma devices will be available by the end of 2018 to hospitals worldwide.

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Last Updated: April 30, 2020 Editor: Michael Johnson