Mounir Laroussi. Image: Old Dominion Univ. Every Thursday, Laboratory Equipment features a Scientist of the Week, chosen from the science industry’s latest headlines. This week’s scientist is Mounir Laroussi from Old Dominion Univ. He and a team found that plasma beams can kill cancer cells while keeping the healthy cells intact.

Q: What made you interested in attempting to fight cancer with plasma beams?

A: In the last few years we showed that low temperature plasmas can inactivate bacteria while at low doses they do not affect mammalian cells. Plasmas are known to affect cells especially during their replication phases. Unlike normal cells that die naturally by a process referred to as “apoptosis” (or programmed cell death), cancer cells are cells [that] “forgot” how to die and keep replicating. Since cancer cells monopolize all the resources available to them to keep the replication going, they are most susceptible to be negatively affected by the chemically reactive species generated by plasma. We also hypothesize that oxygen based species generated by plasma may trigger cell signaling including that which leads the initiation of apoptosis.

Q: What are the future implications of your research and findings?

A: Plasmas appear poised to be a technology upon which a new healthcare approach could be based. The interesting thing about plasmas is they can be produced locally at the point of need. So there is no need for storage of chemicals/medications, inventory, etc… This is not only practical but also very economical.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?

A: The cancer cells exposed to plasma start to die in large numbers only after several hours delay. We verified this also by treating a prostate cancer cell line. Right after the plasma exposure the cells are alive. But 24 hours later they start to die.

Q: What is the take home message of your research and results?

A: Plasma, the fourth and most abundant state of matter in the universe, is not only useful for lighting (neon tubes), television (plasma TV) or welding metals. Plasma may be useful to overcome some tough healthcare challenges. This is truly revolutionary.

Q: What new technologies did you use in your lab during your research?

A: We used fast imaging camera and imaging spectrometers to study the plasma ignition and how the plasma forms a beam like structure. We, of course, also used all necessary biological techniques and instruments — including advanced microscopy — to carry out the cell work.

Q: What is next for you and your research?

A: There is still a lot of work to be done, most importantly checking if the plasma has any cytotoxic effects on healthy cells. This will probably depend on the dose. The higher the dose the more likely cells are going to be affected.