Exploring the possibilities of plasma-based therapies for cancer

Exploring the possibilities of atmospheric-pressure plasmas to develop and consolidate new medical therapies is the main objective of the PlasTHER network, an initiative funded by the European Union under the COST Actions. Led by the UPC, the network brings together research groups, the medical community, industry and patient associations from 24 European countries who will work in the coming years to launch new treatments for cancer, tissue regeneration and repair, emerging infectious diseases and others.

Gas plasma medicine is a multidisciplinary field that emerged two decades ago as an innovative area combining physics, chemistry, engineering and life sciences. This emerging area combines gas plasma technology with clinical medicine and bioengineering with the aim of using cold atmospheric-pressure plasma in human and veterinary therapeutics for wound disinfection and healing, cancer treatment, etc. A powerful technology involving a large number of reactive species (molecules, atoms, ions, electrons, photons, UV and visible radiation) that have been shown to affect cells through complex biochemical procedures, which opens the door to new opportunities for gas plasma medicine.

However, despite scientific and technological innovation in medicine, currently available treatments based on this technology are still not fully effective in fighting cancer, achieving tissue regeneration and repair and combating drug-resistant pathogens, including new-onset infections. For gas plasma technology to progress effectively in these and other areas, it is necessary not only to identify the mechanisms involved in therapeutic action, but also to improve the cooperation of the scientific community working in this field from different disciplines and the relationship with industry.

The Therapeutical applications of Cold Plasma (PlasTHER) COST Action, led by the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya - BarcelonaTech (UPC), aims to promote the development of a gas plasma medicine research program in Europe and to trailblaze European activity in this area. The project is coordinated by Cristina Canal, a researcher at the Biomaterials, Biomechanics and Tissue Engineering Group (BBT), director of the PlasmaMED lab and a professor at the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, affiliated with the Barcelona East School of Engineering (EEBE) and the Biomedical Engineering Research Centre (CREB).

The PlasTHER Action is funded by the European Union under the COST Actions and is composed of a network of more than 100 experts in physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and medicine from 24 countries. Over the coming years this synergistic network of research staff, the medical community and industry and patient associations will be exploring the possibilities of atmospheric-pressure plasmas in medicine to share, develop and consolidate the treatments under research, and to promote Europe’s leadership in this field.  

Canal highlights that “the PlasTHER COST Action will help us to promote the development of gas plasma medicine in Europe and take the excellent research conducted so far to the test bench for the sake of patients.” She remarks that “the research areas that attract the greatest interest for their potential are cancer treatment—the selective action of gas plasma can prevent side effects in healthy tissues—and the antimicrobial action of gas plasma, which can be applied, for instance, in odontology and wound regeneration.”

The researcher explains that “the action of gas plasma is mainly based on its reactive oxygen and nitrogen species, which are intrinsic to cellular functioning. Depending on the type of species and the dose, they can play a double role by exerting beneficial effects on healthy cells and selectively attacking cancer cells.”

Promoting the biomedical applications of gas plasma

One of the priorities of the PlasTHER Action is to promote gas plasma technology as a standardized treatment in several biomedical applications of great importance to society, using its antimicrobial potential for skin treatment and cancer therapy, for example.

In the last five years, intensified research in several areas of gas plasma medicine—specifically, sterilization and decontamination, wound healing and cancer treatment—has called for protocols to be harmonized and knowledge to be oriented along a common direction, for the purpose of having all the efforts and public investment made so far in basic and applied science translated into benefits for society and the health system.

PlasTHER COST is thus conceived as an interdisciplinary network that brings together the latest advances in the basic mechanisms of plasma action and the most appropriate operating conditions to achieve efficient therapies. The network will also work to harmonize protocols within the community in the therapeutic areas involved and to create a road map for each area.

To meet these challenges, the network is structured into six working groups, focused on several areas of technology development: the biological mechanisms of gas plasma interaction, the antimicrobial effects of gas plasma, tissue regeneration, cancer treatment, combined therapies and technology ethics, transfer and diffusion.

At its initial stage, PlasTHER COST has published the network website and held the training school “Fundamental Aspects on Plasma Medicine” in Caparica (Portugal) from 14 to 16 February 2022. This was the first opportunity for many doctoral students to share experiences with staff working in the same research area and to present their work.

The next milestone was an annual meeting on the occasion of the 9th International Conference on Plasma Medicine that took place in Utrecht (the Netherlands) from 27 June to 1 July. The network has some 14 additional scientific missions scheduled in the coming months.

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