The Birthplace of Plasma Medicine, 20 Years Later

Suresh Joshi, PhD, MD, left, and Alexander Fridman, PhD, at the Drexel Plasma Institute in January 2022. Photo courtesy Suresh Joshi.
Suresh Joshi, PhD, MD, left, and Alexander Fridman, PhD, at the Drexel Plasma Institute in January 2022. Photo courtesy Suresh Joshi.

In 2022, Drexel University’s C. & J. Nyheim Plasma Institute (NPI) is celebrating 20 years not only as a multidisciplinary research and educational institute at the University, but as a flagship location and international birthplace of plasma medicine. In this branch of plasma biomedical engineering, plasma, the fourth state of matter in which neutral atoms and molecules are somewhat transformed into charged particles like electrons and ions, is used in a variety of ways for medical, engineering and environmental applications, from the prevention and treatment of diseases to regenerative medicine to water disinfection to air cleaning. Plasma medicine is an emerging branch that integrates basic science and engineering with biomedical sciences, medicine and public health.

Suresh Joshi, MD, PhD, has been involved with the NPI since 2008 and is the director of the NPI Center for Plasma in Health & Biomedical Engineering. A professor at the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science, and Health Systems, and NPI, and adjunct professor at the College of Medicine, Joshi wrote the following article about the institute’s history and highlights from the last two decades.

Drexel University’s Nyheim Plasma Institute, in reality, is the birthplace of plasma medicine. This year, it celebrates 20 years of its establishment at Drexel University. Originally founded in 2002 as the A.J. Drexel Plasma Institute (DPI), it has gone through a roller coaster journey, like any other traditional academic research institute, but is always making consistently progressive research and innovations through all these years. In 2016, the Drexel Plasma Institute was renamed “The C & J Nyheim Plasma Institute” (NPI) honoring Christel and John Nyheim and family’s generous donation to DPI and their support as passionate advocates of plasma science and plasma engineering.

Since its inception, NPI’s founding director, Alexander Fridman, PhD, who is the John A. Nyheim Chair Professor in the College of Engineering, and his team of investigators and faculties from across disciplines have been successfully organizing an impressive research portfolio. Today, Drexel University’s Plasma Institute is the largest plasma research institution in the United States of America in an academic setup. Over 25 international, global and U.S. patents have been generated through research at Drexel University by NPI, and many of Drexel’s plasma-based patented technologies are translational through field trials to commercialization phases. Over 30 Drexel faculties, scientists and staff, and numerous alumni, students and collaborators, substantially contributed toward its growth.

As you can see, the NPI has grown over the years at Drexel, and also expanded the field and capabilities of plasma medicine around the world. Here are some of the highlights:

In 2003, the idea of plasma medicine at Drexel was realized through effective collaborations between faculties, scientists, engineers, and medical doctors with the then-DPI. In 2006, with the help of Drexel University, the Plasma Institute and the collaborating departments took a step forward in an all-together new direction, creating a Plasma Medicine Major Research Initiative. This five-year program was instrumental in bringing together many renowned faculties, scientists, technologies, and physicians (both inside and outside of Drexel, as well as international partners).

During 2006–2007, a NPI invention led to the modified Floating Electrode-Dielectric Barrier Discharge (FE-DBD) plasma application technique for healthcare, medicine, and biomedical science. The FE-DBD technique is now being successfully tested in the field of wound treatment, living tissues, skin disinfection and surface sterilization. 

From 2008 to 2011, NPI and the Drexel College of Medicine’s research team led by me and my former colleague Ari Brooks, MD, who was then the associate professor of surgery and chair of surgical oncology unit at the College of Medicine, carried out successful research on plasma-treated liquids as strong antimicrobial agents for surface associated disinfection. During the same period, Jane Azizkhan-Clifford, PhD, who is now professor emerita and associate dean for medical student research in the College of Medicine, and her team explored molecular mechanisms of mammalian cell death and associated pathways in plasma exposed cell systems. During the same period, everyone mentioned above, and many others, were instrumental in moving many research paradigms, including current Drexel faculties from Drexel’s schools and colleges, as well as outside collaborators. They are, I will say, a true interdisciplinary team of investigators in all pillars of plasma medicine.     

In 2009, the International Society for Plasma Medicine (ISPM) was formally launched here with Prof.  Alexander Fridman as its founding president. ISPM meets bi-yearly in different countries and has made a substantial progress in the field of plasma medicine. This summer, the 9th International Conference on Plasma Medicine (ICPM9) is meeting at Jaarbeurs in Utrecht, Netherlands. These conferences were instrumental in bringing many world-renowned plasma scientists, biologists, technologists and healthcare professionals in network, and wonderfully progressed through collaborations.

From 2011 to 2014, a NPI team of investigators, led by me, for the first time demonstrated the bacterial biofilm inhibition properties of plasma-activated solutions. During same period, our research team demonstrated in-vitro how plasma-treated material enhance wound healing in established (in-vitro) wound models, and subsequently, investigated a rapid inactivation of multidrug resistant (MDR) wound pathogens by plasma-alginate dressing. At the 2012 American Society for Microbiology (ASM) international meet, my team and I presented research on plasma-activated alginate wound dressing that has capability of not just to inactivate MDR pathogens but disinfect wounds and promote wound healing. A year later, my Drexel colleagues and I explored the exact underlying mechanisms of inactivation, but Bill Costerton, PhD, a renowned microbial ecologist considered “the father of biofilms,” was not around then to see the progress; I wish he would have been. (During an interview with ASM, he had categorically mentioned about how amazed he was about the invention of plasma-alginate dressing, and had wished to see underlying mechanisms of pathogen inactivation.)

In 2011–2017, Margaret Wheatley, PhD, John M. Reid Professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, and I led a team of researchers in demonstrating a successful application of non-thermal plasma activated phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) in the sterilization of an ultrasound contrast agent (UCA). Currently, there is no other technology globally which can safely sterilize UCA; chemical methods induce certain changes in UCA, and are therefore not very suitable for such purpose.

From 2012 to 2013, NPI published another breakthrough, this time demonstrating that plasma-treated solutions not only inactivate biofilm-embedded microbes/pathogens and behave like broad-spectrum microbiocides but also retain their antimicrobial properties for two years at room temperature. This discovery changed the dynamics in approaches of how plasma-activated solutions can be generated, applied, and stored on selves. Thus, a potentially competent biocidal agent was found comparable to some of the traditional biocides.

In 2014­–2017, a NPI team led by Vandana Millar, MD, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology in the College of Medicine; Fred Krebs, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology in the College of Medicine; and Prof. Alexander Fridman demonstrated how exposure to nonthermal plasma leads to activation of immune cells and studied underlying mechanisms. In 2016, our team at NPI demonstrated how non-thermal plasma charged aerosols inactivate airborne bacteria in seconds and studied the underlying mechanisms of airborne pathogen inactivation. These experiments confirmed how plasma-based technologies could help in keeping hospital operation theatres and premises safe, as supported through mechanism-based studies. Thus, all these innovations are instrumental in understanding plasma-based technologies and their preventive and therapeutic approaches.

In December 2021, Prof. Alexander Fridman and I were nominated as the United States of America’s experts of non-thermal plasma-based technologies through the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in Geneva, Switzerland. This nomination is based on our expertise and contributions in the non-thermal plasma-based technologies (Prof. Alexander Fridman for non-thermal plasma technologies, and myself for plasma technologies’ application in biology and medicine). This nomination was proposed by Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to IEC. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and IEC are global bodies for international standard-setting and composed of technical experts and representatives from various national standards organizations of member countries. This honor became a wonderful occasion to look back at some of the outstanding achievements of Drexel’s Plasma Institute related to plasma medicine. 

At Drexel, I will be redirecting my efforts and revisiting some of the plasma medicine products such as plasma solutions, plasma-lotion, and plasma-ointment, and planning interdisciplinary, collaborative research to take these studies to translational research phase and interventional trials. This research will open the doors for plasma cosmetic science as well.

Drexel and NPI have several plasma-based products in various stages of development for healthcare application. Through reactivating plasma medicine collaborative research across campus and rebuilding a cross-disciplinary team of investigators, we can achieve this success. I wish, one day, our plasma-based products will reach to the community, healthcare centers and the end-users.