Admit it, you've tried everything to get rid of your crusty yellow toenail fungus: prescription anti-fungal pills, medicated creams and nail polish, laser therapy — the usual remedies. But that darn fungus keeps coming back. Cold plasma could be your salvation.
We're not talking about biological plasma, that stuff in your blood that holds all the blood cells in place. We're talking about ionized gas, a fourth state of matter first identified in 1879 by Sir William Crooke — things like lightning, or the plasma arcs the sun spews out. You can find these gases in plasma TV displays, you can use them to create antennae, and if you're a sci-fi fan, you may dream of plasma firearms as a high-tech weapon.
Cold plasmas also have a plethora of applications, although it depends on what you mean by "cold." As I wrote in 2012:
The term "cold" can be a bit misleading. (Eg, "high-temperature superconductivity" takes place at temperatures common to liquid nitrogen.) Many cold plasmas are "cold" compared to, say, the sun, but still pretty hot: on the order of 70 to 100 degrees Celsius. Apply that to living human tissue, and it's gonna burn. Badly.
Still, they're useful for things like sterilizing drinking water and decontaminating industrial surfaces. That's because they kill ("inactivate") bacteria by destroying the bacterial cell membrane via a lethal combination of charged particles, free radicals and UV radiation. They work fast, too: the Air Force has an active cold plasma research program, using them to break down the chemicals found in toxins like anthrax in mere minutes, compared to several hours for other methods.
Cold plasmas can kill bacteria, remove dental plaque, loosen the connections between tissue cells, help coagulate blood and reduce bleeding, and perhaps one day even remove cancerous tumours. And now it seems they could provide a terrific treatment for fungal infections on your feet.
Fungi love warm, moist environments — like inside your sweaty shoes - and they particularly thrive around the toes because there is less blood flow than in your fingers. So the body's immune is slower to kick in to fight a budding infection. Infections (known as ocychomycosis) typically start as white or yellow spots, and then dig deeper under the nail, causing discoloration, crumbling around the edges, and in extreme cases, pain and, um, a distinctly foul odor. There are treatments, but they tend to take a long time to work (several weeks to a year), can have side effects, can be expensive (in the case of laser therapy), and more often than not, the infection comes back.
Now there is a promising cold air plasma remedy for fungal infections, developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. They described their work earlier this month at the Gaseous Electronics Conference in Honolulu. There's already a start-up company, Device Farm, geared toward bringing the treatment into clinical practice.
The Berkeley researchers used e coli in their experiments rather than the actual fungi responsible for infections (T. rubrum and T. mentagrophytes). That's because working with the actual fungus would require a BioSafety Level 2 Laboratory. Fortunately, the folks at Device Farm had such a lab, and were able to test the treatment on those fungi using cow hooves and nails from human cadavers, according to CEO Jeff Roe.
The Berkeley scientists reported a significant reduction in e coli populations following the application of cold plasma, and Device Farm reported success as well, although it took a bit longer to kill the fungi than the e coli. The company still needs FDA approval before they can test their cold plasma treatment on human patients, and they will need to package it in a clinic-ready device.
Exactly how long it would take to clear up an infection depends on the individual, but it is a much shorter timeframe that the current available remedies. Ideally, the treatments would be outpatient procedures: you'd go to your doctor's office for three 45-minute treatments in one week, which should wipe our your infection.
Even better, the cold plasma treatment is pretty much painless, as Roe can attest, since he tried it out on his own toenails. Yes, he suffered from onychomycosis, on 9 of his 10 toenails. After the treatments, "All nine nails showed clear nail growth," he told Gizmodo, although two have since become reinfected.
Sounds like it's time for another round of cold plasmas.
Image: Alexander Raths/Shutterstock.