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. With a hand from orbit, research on the International Space Station has helped develop plasma-based devices to fight superbugs on Earth.
Cold plasma therapy opens up a new way to keep hospital patients safe from infections. This technology spin-off from space knocks out bacteria without damaging human tissue and speeds wound healing. Cold plasma has many practical applications, from food hygiene to treatment of different kinds of skin diseases, and purification of water in developing regions. Fundamental research in orbit led to miniaturisation and devices that can be operated at room temperature.
Facts and figures
- In just 30 seconds, plasma irradiation can kill 20 million antibiotic resistant bacteria
- Clinical trials involved 379 patients and over 3500 plasma treatments for nearly a decade
- Plasma Crystal is the longest-running space experiment in the history of human spaceflight
- Technology spin-off from research aboard the International Space Station is opening up a new way to keep hospital patients safe from infections
- Start-up company ‘terraplasma GmbH’ was formed to exploit the technology in cooperation with industrial partners. A daughter company was founded in 2016 – “terraplasma medical GmbH” that focuses on chronic wound treatment and healing
- Over 50 scientists and technical staff were involved in the research, development and clinical trial phases. The start-up companies are ready to develop their own devices giving plenty of scope for sustainable developments
Some 400 kilometres above our heads, research on cold plasma has been taking place since 2001 on the International Space Station. Plasma Crystal is the longest-running space experiment in the history of human spaceflight. Over 100 different experiments have been carried out in space to study ‘cold plasma’, with dozens of astronauts running the equipment on the Space Station.
The weightless environment is ideal for cold plasma research – it allows astronauts to produce analogues of gases and liquids and observe phase transitions such as melting or freezing. For fundamental research in space plasma is produced with noble gases. For medical applications on Earth this plasma technology was developed further, and just air and electricity are used. The technology produces an electrically charged gas, which is a sustainable resource easy to generate.
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. In space it can provide huge benefits for astronaut health such as treating skin ailments, for hygiene and purifying water.
Benefits for earthlings
Cold plasmas have the properties to inactivate bacteria, fungi, viruses, spores and odour molecules safely and efficiently. They are highly effective against all microbial infections, enhance wound healing and alleviate skin diseases. This revolution in healthcare has many application areas: medical technology, water treatment, odour management and hygiene.
The percentage of people affected by chronic wounds is rising, especially among the ageing population. . A start-up company, terraplasma medical GmbH, is now focusing on developing a small ergonometric hospital treatment device for chronic wounds.
“Our first cold plasma devices will be available by the end of 2018 to hospitals worldwide.”