NIH grant supports exploration of plasma medicine capabilities in blood

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The use of low-temperature plasma created by corona discharge — an electrical discharge formed by ionization of fluid that surrounds an ­electrically charged conductor — in medical applications shows great promise to revolutionize medical treatments. Known as plasma medicine, the emerging field combines physics, engineering, medicine and life sciences to study and improve medical treatment capabilities.

Researchers in Penn State’s College of Engineering, College of Agricultural Sciences and College of Medicine have been awarded a grant from the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to investigate how low-temperature plasma produced in human blood can serve as a less invasive way to treat infectious bacterial growth on human tissue and prosthetic implants in the cardiovascular system. The researchers will also examine how the plasma affects the structure and function of the components of which blood is comprised.

Sean Knecht, assistant teaching professor of engineering design, serves as the principal investigator of the three-year, $575,000 project titled “Low-temperature Corona Plasma Discharge Treatment of Bacterial Biofilms in the Cardiovascular Environment.” Sven Bilén, head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs and professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering; Christopher Siedlecki, professor of surgery and biomedical engineering; Girish Kirimanjeswara, assistant professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences; and Lichong Xu, assistant professor of surgery, serve as co-investigators on the project.

Plasma, the fourth state of matter, is traditionally created by heating up a gas to separate the atom’s electrons from its nucleus, which allows the plasma to conduct electricity. Plasma usually is extremely hot — up to tens of thousands and possibly millions of degrees. But, the researchers are also able to create “cold” plasma, plasma that is at or near room temperature, allowing for its use in the medical field without thermal damage to soft tissue.

The team, which also will include student researchers from Penn State’s Low-Temperature Plasma Science and Engineering Research Group, will work to successfully demonstrate the capabilities of cold plasma as an internal infection treatment in the cardiovascular system.  

Typically, when an infection occurs in the arteries or heart valves, medicine is ineffective due to the resiliency of the bacteria infecting the heart, and the formation of biofilms, which are structures that protect bacteria colonies from antibiotics. Surgery most often is the only way to successfully treat the infection.

“We are working hard to eradicate diseases, but they evolve very fast. They often evolve much faster than we’re able to develop drugs and get them approved for human use to fight these diseases. Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest problems that is out there right now,” Knecht said. “We need to start looking more at innovative solutions where people from materials science, engineering, the life sciences and physics get involved with some of these problems because we need additional expertise.”

To win this fight, the researchers are creating plasma within liquid, first in a simulant like saline, and then in human blood.

The team will investigate how the plasma reacts with the blood, focusing on potential damage to red blood cells, white blood cells, blood proteins and blood platelets that causes coagulation. After the team better understands how the plasma will react with blood, three different bacteria — Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aerugoinosa and Streptococcus pneumoniae — that commonly cause infections in the heart will be cultured in blood. Plasma will be introduced after the cultures have been created, to attempt to kill the infections.

“Our group has already demonstrated that we can use plasma to kill bacteria. We’re doing that right now,” Knecht said. “But, we haven’t done it inside of blood.”

If the research team is able to kill the bacteria in the blood, they will then use the Nanofabrication Laboratory at Penn State’s Materials Research Institute to design a proof of concept for a new catheter, as a less invasive way to insert plasma into the cardiovascular system.

“To our knowledge, we are going to be the first people who investigate this impact directly in human blood,” Knecht said. “It could open a whole new world of opportunities for plasma medicine inside the human body.”

As an engineer and physicist, Knecht strives to open scientific doors and make major contributions to improve people’s lives, something he will be able to do through this multidisciplinary collaboration. 

“We want to sate our curiosity, answer fundamental questions, but overall, our goal as engineers is to help society.”

Media Contacts: 
Last Updated November 28, 2017