Oak Ridge National Laboratory


News Release

Media Contact: Ron Walli (wallira@ornl.gov)
Communications and External Relations


ORNL developing technique to help burns heal faster

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., Feb. 2, 1999 — Burn victims may be spared the agony of today's treatment method with a technique being developed at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that uses a lidar system and laser to map and automatically burn away dead tissue.

The system could one day make obsolete the standard medical practice of scraping and cutting away dead and damaged skin and flesh, called debriding. Instead, the new system would provide a three-dimensional map of the burn and surrounding area and tissue damage assessment. ORNL algorithms would guide the laser as it automatically removes the dead tissue so healing can begin.

ORNL became involved in the project about two years ago when Glenn Allgood of the lab's Instrumentation and Controls Division attended a meeting hosted by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

"We got to talking about conventional methods of determining the extent and degree of burns and how fantastic it would be if we could develop a better system," Allgood said. "While existing methods can tell us something about a burn, they have significant measurement limitations."

For example, active triangulation is a simple method that uses a laser for measuring the extent of a burn. Used with patients, however, it is prone to errors because of scattering of the light within the tissue, Allgood said. Similarly, while auto-focus techniques do a credible job of profiling highly reflective surfaces, they are useless for gaining information about skin and flesh.

The system being developed at ORNL is called a Coherent Frequency-Modulated Continuous Wave Laser Radar Mapping System. It will provide real-time imaging to compensate for possible movements inherent with live patients and can deal with the contoured surfaces of the human body.

Allgood and colleagues Eric Grann, Don Hutchinson and Bill Dress have demonstrated a proof-of-concept diagnostic system. The next step is development of a prototype system, followed by clinical studies and the licensing of the technology to the private sector.

The final product will distinguish between live and dead tissue by measuring the amount of hemoglobin - or some other parameter specific to human tissue - and will be capable of removing dead skin and tissue down to the cellular level. The system also will provide the doctor with more detailed information, allowing for more intelligent assessments for critical care and treatment.

"From the military service's perspective, doctors should be able to manage a larger number of patients while providing enhanced health care," Allgood said. "The system could also provide an overall assessment of tissue damage, including localization of wounds, punctures and scrapes, as well as lesions from chemical and biological contaminants."

Each year, more than 500,000 burn victims are treated at emergency rooms across the country. Fifty thousand are admitted for treatment of acute burns, according to statistics from the American Burn Association in Chicago.

Funding for the project is being provided by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

ORNL is a DOE multiprogram research facility managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.