The cure-all du jour—for everything from acne to autoimmune disorders—comes in an IV.
BY MOLLY LANGMUIR JUL 5, 2016
When it was alleged this past March that Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, also a rodeo rider who suffers from chronic pain, used public funds to travel to Oklahoma and get something called the “Jesus Shot,” the story was so fascinatingly strange it made national news—which is saying a lot in this election cycle. Among the more outlandish details: The man who administered the $300 injection, a convicted felon who goes by Dr. Mike, claims the formula (the contents of which he won’t disclose) relieves pain not just temporarily but for-ever—and contends the idea for it came to him courtesy of, well, Jesus.
All that smacks of quackery, but the report coincides with the increasingly broad use of various shots and IV treatments to eradicate everything from jet lag to brain fog to the almighty hangover. The potions on offer are usually some combination of vitamins, antioxidants, and rehydration fluids—the utility of which is pretty much an open question, at least based on the medical literature.
The latest IV breakthrough, though, presented last spring at Monaco’s annual Aesthetic & Anti-Aging Medicine World Conference, sounds positively space age: Wavelengths of light are shot directly into the blood via an intravenous catheter outfitted with an optical fiber. The device that does this, the UVL1500, is already approved in much of Europe to diminish pain, accelerate wound healing, and reduce inflammation, and its manufacturer, Florida-based UVLrx Therapeutics, is now working on getting a similar gadget, the UVL1000, okayed for use in the U.S. An FDA-designated institutional review board has already deemed it a “non-significant risk device,” which means it’s not a serious danger to research subjects, though this doesn’t address its effectiveness. Company officials say they’re working on that now: For example, one small, recently completed study of 15 patients—conducted by Shreveport, Louisiana, cosmetic surgeon Daniel Knight, MD—found that by adding a series of UVL1500 sessions to laser and ultrasound skin-tightening treatments, subjects achieved the healing and other benefits in one week that are usually observed after two months.
The light concept actually dates back to the late 1800s, when Danish doctor Niels Ryberg Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering that the bacteria-killing properties of UV rays could eradicate skin lesions caused by tuberculosis. (Which is why sanitariums at one point offered heliotherapy—basically, sunbathing.) In the 1920s, Seattle physicist Emmett Knott patented an apparatus that treated infectious blood diseases by extracting blood, irradiating it with UV light, then reinjecting it into patients. By the 1940s, even leading medical centers like Georgetown University Hospital were using ultraviolet blood irradiation, or UBI, for not just bacterial infections but also autoimmune disorders and viruses, like pneumonia and hepatitis. Dozens of papers attesting to UBI’s benefits appeared in scientific journals at the time, such as a 1944 study in the Archives of Physical Therapy reporting that 57 of 58 polio patients treated with UBI had fully recovered. But there were few randomized, placebo-controlled trials, and with the widespread use of antibiotics and advent of the polio vaccine in the ’50s, the treatment fell out of favor.
This past April, Michael R. Hamblin, PhD, an associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, coauthored a paper titled “Ultraviolet Blood Irradiation: Is It Time to Remember ‘The Cure That Time Forgot’?” in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology. “UBI has a huge effect on the blood,” Hamblin says. In fact, another form of light-wave blood therapy (with the even wordier name extracorporeal photopheresis, or ECP) has already been approved by the FDA to treat a type of lymphoma, and it’s been tested on a variety of other conditions: “Several clinical trials suggest that ECP may be used to treat a broad spectrum of autoimmune diseases,” concluded a team of pathologists writing in the peer-reviewed journal Transfusion and Apheresis Science in 2015; another article in the same publication showed that it helped prevent rejection in heart transplant patients.
Hamblin says there are only theories about UBI’s healing mechanism, but “clearly the immune system is involved.” For infectious diseases, he adds, “one possibility is that the light is changing the DNA of viruses or bacteria so they’re better recognized by the immune system.” (He and other UBI enthusiasts, such as Charleston, South Carolina, pathologist J. Todd Kuenstner, MD, admit that they’ve got a ways to go before the medical establishment believes. “What will change minds is data and large trials,” Kuenstner says.)
What’s novel about UVLrx Therapeutics’ devices is that they irradiate blood without removing it from the body; they’re also the first to combine UV light with red and green wavelengths, which have well-established benefits for the skin: diminishing acne, boosting circulation, and improving collagen production. (As for cancer risk, one 30-minute IV light treatment delivers about the same amount of UVA radiation as one minute in the sun.)
It’s obviously too early to make definitive conclusions about the benefits of UBI, but given the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections (not to mention viruses like Zika), Hamblin is not the only one calling for more research. UVLrx, for one, is experimenting with the device to treat dengue fever, in partnership with a doctor in the Philippines, and has set its sights on forestalling aging across the board by diminishing inflammation. Now that would be a Jesus Shot.
This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of ELLE: http://www.elle.com/