[Orac note: Orac regrets that there hasn’t been a new bit of Insolence, either Respectful or not-so-Respectful, in nearly a week. The universe got in the way. Fortunately, to get started again, Orac has found a tasty bit of woo called COVID Light Therapy. He also hopes to get back on a more regular posting schedule (or even more frequent than what has been the norm the last few weeks) beginning on Monday, right after the Easter holiday.]
In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, with respect to the antivaccine movement, I’ve liked to repeat the mantra that “everything old is new again” or that “there is nothing new under the sun.” The reason, of course, is that, when it comes to antivaccine tropes and disinformation, everything old really is new again, with old antivax pseudoscience, distortions of science, and just plain misinformation, disinformation, and lies repurposed for COVID-19 vaccines and COVID-19 itself. It turns out that the same thing is true for dubious treatments and outright quackery. Be it homeopathy, acupuncture, or any other scientific nonsense, quackery is being furiously repurposed for COVID-19. Nowhere have I seen a better example of this phenomenon than with a website I found last week, COVID Light Therapy. To give you an idea what this light therapy, a.k.a. “photobiomodulation” (PBM) for COVID-19, I thought I’d start out with a screen shot from the website:
This is basically exactly what it looks like. This “light therapy” involves shining red or infrared light externally or into the nose or mouth. As for the blurb above, the only thing I can see that is true is that the therapy is likely noninvasive and probably safe. As for its use for “improved circulation,” well, all I can say is that infrared light is basically the application of heat more than anything else.
But how? How, you ask, does shining a red or infrared light up your nose prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19, at least according to the Photonic Therapy Institute? Glad you asked. On the COVID Light Therapy website, I found this handy-dandy, super-science-y looking diagram that I took the liberty of taking a screenshot of:
As you might imagine, that reference at the bottom used as support for COVID Light Therapy was like catnip to me—irresistible. So I looked it up and found it here. The first thing I noticed was that it’s a review article from October. The second thing I noticed was that all of the studies included in the review were in animal models, with not a single clinical study in humans included among the 17 studies reviewed. The third thing that I noticed was that most of the papers had nothing to do with COVID-19. There were papers about acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) induced by bowel ischemia (lack of blood flow) and reperfusion, by LPS (a component of endotoxin from bacteria involved in causing the metabolic derangements seen in septic shock), formaldehyde or ovalbumin sprayed into the lung, or by tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α). The most recent paper was from 2018, long before the pandemic, and none of them even involved other coronaviruses, such as MERS or SARS.
Finally, I also noticed a figure in the paper that looks suspiciously like the figure above only without humans:
The rest is all speculation about COVID-19 light therapy like this:
Photobiomodulation is an innovative approach in this regard. It is a non-invasive approach in which the LEDs or low -level lasers are used to produce the red or near- infrared (NIR) light absorbed by the cellular photo-acceptors. This light absorption produces the ROS, such as singlet oxygen, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), and superoxide , , . These ROS affect many cellular processes, such as proliferation, differentiation , , , , , adenosine triphosphate (ATP) formation ,  and also can reduce the inflammtion . So, PBM is a helpful approach when the cellular function is impaired especially by the hypoxia . Previous studies have shown the advantages of the PBM including anti-inflammatory effects and acceleration of the wound healing . These features operate alongside the general effects of the PBM for balancing the metabolic, analgesic, and immunomodulatory conditions. One advantage of this approach is that it is applied locally without any systemic side effects on the other organs . Based on the aforementioned advantages of the PBM and the current lack of established treatments for COVID-19 disease, it seems that the PBM could be helpful in controlling the COVID-19 disease as an alternative or adjunctive treatment, particularly in the severe cases with ARDS.
Again, while there are papers to suggest that PBM can have all these effects, the only evidence is in cell culture or animal models, and there is no good clinical evidence to suggest that the products being sold on the COVID Light Therapy website do anything to prevent or treat COVID-19. Indeed, even the corresponding author, Reza Fekrazad, only suggests that randomized clinical trials of PBM to treat COVID-19 might be indicated and that the infrared light can reach the lungs through the skin, subcutaneous tissue, and muscle when used externally in patients who are prone and on a ventilator. He also suggests an intravenous approach(!) or irradiating lymphoid tissue, such as what is found in lymph node basins.
Earlier in the pandemic (last April, to be specific), Fekrazad published an article also suggesting that light could be used to treat COVID-19 in which his language was a bit more…flowery:
In conclusion, COVID-19 disease is very unknown, and scientists in any area must manage the most dramatic challenge of the century, in any way possible. As we move forward, we should synchronize our speed with the progression of this disease, or even progress faster than it, so it does not take more lives in the future while challenging humanity. According to mechanisms mentioned earlier, we are referring to the capabilities of PBM and photodynamic therapy. The best use is a combination of both methods, as mentioned earlier. The present treatments are focused on virus removal, tissue oxygenation, and reduction or inhibition of cytokine storm caused by severe inflammation. With a combination of these two methods, we can achieve these goals with minimal interference with pharmaceutical methods and battle this disease with biophysical agents. Of course, in the future, the use of a different modality of PBM and aPDT can be evolved and, by using monoclonal antibodies we could target lung tissue specifically. It can even be improved by using Nano technology, making new photosensitizers in Nano scales, and pasting them to the target tissues to obtain better results.
To sum up, this Nano particle, which can be called neither live nor non-live, is perhaps a flick or inspiration; proud and intoxicating human knowledge should attain the highest point of growth and excellence and be severely challenged so that a revolution in science is created and it warns the human beings to be prepared for the tougher challenges coming in future. We should help each other out in any field, see each other as one, be holistic, get out of our rooms and aquariums, and take a more holistic look at science so that the ship of life on this beautiful planet continues its tranquil journey to a beautiful horizon, and be prepared to face any kind of natural or unnatural turbulence.
PDT stands for photodynamic therapy and can involve targeting a light-sensitive molecule to specific cells, either with an antibody or by other means, and then shining a light on the cells once the light-sensitive compound is in the cells, to therapeutic effect. PDT is not quackery, but, again, Fekrazad’s article then was totally speculative.
Personally, I’m not particularly convinced. Besides Fekrazad’s ideas being totally speculative, more importantly, there’s the same problem involved with this particular therapy as there is with another light-based therapy that I discussed not too long ago, the Healight. (As you might recall, the clinical evidence published for Healight was not exactly what I would refer to as compelling.) Specifically, the problem is that light only treats local areas, the organ or anatomic structures being hit by the light beam, and one would expect the same to be true of “COVID Light Therapy.” I discussed in detail in two articles why Healight is highly implausible from a scientific standpoint. COVID Light Therapy is even more implausible by far.
None of this stops the sellers of COVID Light Therapy from making some rather overblown claims. First, they claim their magic light can prevent COVID-19:
Both by lighting the nasal passages where it reproduces and by supporting a healthy immune system. This can be an important tool in keeping those especially susceptible from contracting the virus.
Light Therapy may help prevent COVID infections because:
- PBM stimulates production of Nitric Oxide (NO) throughout the body
- NO becomes the primary immune system after Interferon is shut down by COVID-19 virus
- Red Light also denatures the spikes (corona) on the virus
- Reduces chance of infection
Then they claim that their COVID Light Therapy can treat COVID-19:
For those who come down with COVID-19 Light is proving to be a secret weapon in quickly restoring health.
Not only do those infected overcome the virus faster, they experience shorter recovery periods!Light Therapy helps the body fight COVID infection:
- Reduces pain (inflammation)
- Suppresses the over production of inflammatory cytokines
- Improves immune response
- Reduces chance of severe infection
- Spikes on virus are sensitive to red light — Reduces viral load in nasal cavity
And then they claim that COVID Light Therapy can help you recover from COVID-19, the implication being that it might prevent “long COVID,” the constellation of chronic debilitating symptoms that many patients who have recovered from the disease are reporting:
Even if you don’t discover Light until you are past an active infection, Light Therapy excels at speeding up recovery from the lingering symptoms of COVID-19:
Body Aches, Fatigue, Brain Fog, Head Congestion, Digestive Upsets.Light Therapy help the body to recover from Post-COVID Syndrome:
- Reduces pain (inflammation)
- Improves breathing
- Enhances tissue healing
- Restores energy and stamina
- Reduces brain fog and nerve pain
- Helps with emotional relief
So how is this “light therapy” administered? COVID Light Therapy offers three methods:
- Intranasal: “The COVID-19 virus is understood to replicate in the nasal passages – and to be susceptible to Red light. Introducing Red Light directly into the sinuses has been shown to rapidly reduce viral load.”
- Pad-based: “Contouring the delivery of Red & Near-Infrared light directly to the areas affected by COVID-19 with Red & Infrared Light Therapy pads is the most effective method to saturate tissue for the reduction of inflammation.”
- Targeted: “Activating acupoints with targeted Red Light (aka Photopuncture) delivers systemic responses by the whole body. Using a torch-style light on specific points is fast and portable. These tools can also be used in the sinus passages.”
If I hadn’t strongly suspected that COVID Light Therapy was nonsense before, that last bit cinches it! Basically, what is being offered is an unholy union of COVID Light Therapy and acupuncture, with acupuncture points being the “target” for the light beams. I mean, seriously: How is this different from a form of quackery I first wrote about nearly a decade ago called “Esogetic Colorpuncture“? You might recall that this particular form of woo involved shining colored lights on acupuncture points “in order to energize powerful healing impulses in our physical and energy bodies,” or, as I quoted at the time:
Esogetic Colorpuncture involves colored light, infrared frequencies, ultraviolet frequencies, brain wave frequencies, sound, and crystal treatments as indicated by Kirlian Energy Emission Analysis to gently unlock and release emotional trauma and energetic blocks which often underlie our illnesses.
OK, Esogetic Colorpuncture is a bit more amusing, but at their hearts Photopuncture is no different than Esogetic Colorpuncture, and proposing to shine colored lights on acupuncture points to prevent or treat COVID-19 should be on its face just plain ridiculous. Admittedly it isn’t as ridiculous as “biopuncture,” which involves combining homeopathic remedies with acupuncture and using acupuncture needles to inject such remedies into acupuncture points, but it’s nonetheless plenty ridiculous.
I went looking the website for any actual evidence that COVID Light Therapy could work. (What can I say? I’m a physician-scientist. It’s what I do.) Those behind the website did provide a list of articles from the peer-reviewed literature about light therapy, photodynamic therapy, etc., but few of the articles had much relevance to COVID-19, and many dated back to before the pandemic. One article is a news report from May that describes a company called Steriwave that had proposed using light to “sterilize” the nasal passages of COVID-19, while another is a press release from another company, Ondine Biomedical, Inc. One might be forgiven nearly 11 months ago for thinking that might help, but we know now that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, can get deep into the lungs. Then there’s a case report from August that is, as most such reports are, completely unconvincing that this is anything other than confusing correlation with causation.
As for the rest of the papers “supporting” COVID Light Therapy, they’re all very speculative, making connections that might or might not be valid, such as noting that laser light therapy can induce nitric oxide, which can inhibit viral replication. It also doesn’t help that “low level laser light therapy” (LLLT) shows up on a lot of websites promoting “anti-aging” treatments, along with rather amazing claims about how it will decrease wrinkles and rejuvenate skin as well as to cause hair regrowth in men, and one review article about the latter indication impressed me only with how poor the studies included were.
It didn’t help my acceptance of light therapy that the Biophotonic Therapy Institute, which is apparently selling these devices, boasts:
By applying infrared, red and blue light pulsed at specific frequencies, circulation increases and the body’s production of nitric oxide is activated. Nitric Oxide, the “miracle molecule” provides multiple benefits to the body by regulating blood pressure and blood flow to organs, preventing harmful clots and combating arterial plaque, reducing oxidative stress and aiding nerve communication.
The application of light also increases ATP (adenosine tryphosphate) production. ATP is the fuel produced by the mitochondria in your cells. It is the fuel your body runs on. All food must be converted to ATP to be used as energy. Enhanced ATP production results in greater cell energy, regeneration and renewal.
Here’s a hint: Increase ATP levels do not necessarily translate to greater “regeneration and renewal,” nor is greater “regeneration and renewal” always a good thing. After all, cancer cells have a lot of ATP because they’re metabolically quite active. Don’t get me wrong. There are apparently some indications for light therapy of this sort, but, wow. It’s hard to take seriously an organization that offers “training” for “certified light therapists” (CLTs) with this in its FAQ:
Q – How do I know if light therapy does not require to be licensed in my state?
To the best of our knowledge, as long as you clearly inform your clients that you are not a doctor or veterinarian and are correct with your language that you do not diagnose or cure any diseases, you do not have to be licensed in any state in the US at this time. That is one of the things we teach in our CLT program. As PBM grows in popularity, I am sure that, much like massage therapy, the various states and municipalities will eventually require licensing so that they can charge fees.
Yes, indeed! As long as you give your clients the Quack Miranda warning, you don’t need a license to shine a light on them to “cure” disease!
Then there’s this quote:
The best description I have read is “Light gives every cell the energy it needs to do its own job better!”
My only retort to this is that humans are not plants. (At least, most of us are not.) We do not get our energy through photosynthesis. None of this stops the Photonic Therapy Institute from offering courses to become a CLT for humans, horses, and pets.
But, hey, this is science, ma-an! On the COVID Light Therapy website, I found a link to what is presented as a “research study” run by something called the MMD Wellness Group:
Welcome to a pivotal and key research study, Photobiomodulation (PBM) and Inflammation. Given positive results it is anticipated that PBM will be nationally acknowledged as an effective intervention for symptoms of COVID-19, an inflammatory illness. The frist study focuses on using Photobiomodulation (PBM) on a regular basis to reduce inflammation expressed as pain and improved quality of life with individuals without COVID-19. Eventually A second Part of the study will be focused on individuals who have been infected with COVID-19 and are using PBM.
Preliminary results from informal testimonials show improvement with reduced symptoms in a very short time frame. Based on these early signs of positive effects our Institutional Review Board encouraged us to include how PBM effects COVID-19 symptoms in our study… and so we have.
Group A of the study captures the results from consistent use of PBM to remediate pain and discomfort, signs of inflammation, but COVID free. COVID-19 is an inflammatory illness and this data provides the backbone for the second category of study;
Future Studies Group B and C are Temperarily Paused.
Thank you for participating.
I note that I just straight up cut and pasted the text above.
So let me get this straight. This “COVID Light Therapy” study doesn’t even yet study patients with COVID-19? Worse, it doesn’t have a control group and appears to rely on only subjective measures? Most acupuncture studies aren’t even this bad. At least, it sure seems that way, as I couldn’t find anything resembling a detailed protocol anywhere.
I searched ClinicalTrials.gov for “photobiomodulation,” and there were a number of studies there, including for Alzheimer’s disease, muscle performance, plantar fasciitis, and even breast cancer-related lymphedema. I even found four studies looking at PBM for COVID-19, which I found depressing. Two of these studies were completed; so I searched PubMed to see if their results have been published yet. One of the studies was carried out in Massachusetts and had an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine doctor named Scott Sigman as its principal investigator (PI), who’s also shown up on TV promoting an unconvincing case report in which the patient, although mostly recovered, still has debilitating symptoms. In any event, reported preliminary results for ten patients showed significant differences in pulmonary outcomes, but it’s hard to know what to make of this given an open label trial in only ten patients. The other study was done in Brazil and looked at the use of LLLT on respiratory muscles in COVID-19. No results have been published yet, and the studies PI only has one publication listed in PubMed from 2014. The bottom line is simple. There is as yet no compelling evidence that LLLT is effective at treating or preventing COVID-19 to support the extravagant claims made on the COVID Light Therapy website. It’s possible that the treatment might have some beneficial effect, but there’s no convincing evidence yet, and the mechanisms proposed are so convoluted as to remain implausible to me.
The mention of an IRB, though, piqued my interest. Which IRB? Who would support a study that’s not even as good as, for instance, Dr. Sigman’s highly preliminary study based on rather underwhelming rationale? Then I found this letter to the IRB of the Institute of Regenerative and Cellular Medicine, which looks to be a for-profit IRB specifically designed for stem cell clinics to use to oversee their “clinical trials.” Given the way that such clinics have registered highly dubious and uninformative clinical trials in order to turn ClinicalTrials.gov into a marketing tool, this doesn’t look good. IRCM’s IRB is run by Dr. Barbara Krutchkoff, who is on the Board of Advanced Natural Health, where her bio states:
Her diverse educational background includes physics and computer science at the University of Florida, biomedical engineering graduate studies at Virginia Tech, a PhD in behavioral psychology and a Master of Psychology at University of Santa Monica. Barbara received her Doctorate in integrative medicine after studying dozens of healing modalities including Homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Energy Medicine, and Quantum Biofeedback.
She has taken numerous medical and data science courses online via major universities and at conferences throughout the world, and Stem Cell Fellowships at both A4M and UCLA.
Barbara is a board-certified Diplomat and Fellow of the AABRM and a member of the World Organization of Natural Medical Practitioners.
In other words, she’s a multiquackery quack, including a stem cell quack. Now get a load of the letter by Marcia Marye Denton of the MDD Wellness Group to this dubious IRB:
We are living in turbulent times, dangerous times, heartbreaking times. When we look at the standard safety measures to prevent COVID-19 infections we can only stand in awe and wonder at the efficacy of our face masks, efforts at social distancing and isolation/staying home.
What if we have an intervention that could mitigate if not protect us from this incredible stealthy virus, enhance our innate immune system…provide an intervention not just fragile prevention.
What if we have it and it is currently cleared as safe by the FDA for use to reduce pain and increase circulation …but is not yet cleared to reduce inflammation even though we see evidence of this all the time? What if a simple study shows just that! It reduces inflammation…and therefore could mitigate the effects of COVID-19 an inflammatory illness.
COVID-19 when not inhibited, explodes inside the body with unrelenting and devastating effects especially in the most vulnerable, elders and children…many times even leads to death.
Photobiomodulation (PBM) (Light Therapy) is that intervention. The science of inflammation teaches us that if inflammation is reduced then pain is reduced…exactly what we, as Light Therapy Practitioners, have been providing for years.
The purpose of this study is to demonstrate that Photobiomodulation reduces inflammation simply by applying red and infrared wavelengths of light to the body. Using the HSCRP marker for inflammation, with a pre/post blood draw, a reduction can be easily measured.
With that data we will apply for an Emergency Use Authorization to promote the use of PBM as both an intervention and a prevention for individuals at risk for exposure to or infection of COVID-19. Given the EUA we do not run the risk of making false claims and being removed from the opportunity to provide profound benefit again in these turbulent time, dangerous times, heartbreaking times.
I must admit that I laughed out loud when I saw this pitch for a study of COVID Light Therapy. Where are the references? Where are the preliminary data, preclinical and/or clinical? Where is the mention that this “study” is “limited to Hope Counseling Staff and employees and their spouses”?
But, hey, maybe you’ve been convinced. Maybe you know you want to use COVID Light Therapy not just for COVID-19 but for lots of other things. Maybe you—yes, you!—want to buy the necessary equipment. Fear not! The COVID Light Therapy Package will only set you back $599, while the Red+ Photopuncture Torch Kit will only cost you $525. Hard up for cash? If you don’t mind leaving out the infrared light, you can get yourself a Red Photopuncture Torch Kit for a steal, just $299! What a bargain.
All I can say after reading all about COVID Light Therapy is the same thing I say all too often. Grifters gonna grift, and, in the age of COVID-19, everything old is new again.