CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Speed is of the essence when you're talking about a stroke. About 95 percent of stroke victims don't get to the hospital quickly enough for treatment that could save their lives or help them recover.
After stroke symptoms begin, there's a three-hour window in which doctors may be able to inject a clot-busting drug called TPA, or tissue plasminogen activator.
The patient must arrive within two hours, because tests must be done to see if the patient is a good candidate for TPA. Those tests take an hour.
Now, UNC researchers are testing the benefits of a non-invasive laser that might buy blood-starved brain cells more time.
Gerda Moneypenny, 78, has had about five strokes. One left lingering effects on her speech and mobility.
In the most common type of stroke, a blood clot blocks oxygen and nutrients to a region of the brain. In June, Moneypenny had a stroke as she she slept at a nursing home in Hillsborough. She arrived at the UNC emergency department too late for a TPA injection.
Her son, Bill Moneypenny, agreed to an experimental treatment for her instead.
"They wanted to try this new procedure – a laser procedure,” he said.
"We direct energy through the skull, so it's a non-invasive procedure,” explained UNC neurologist Dr. David Huang.
Huang said the laser doesn't bust the clot or restore blood flow.
"The thought is that the energy at the specific wavelength excites certain cellular mechanisms that provide cellular energy called ATP,” Huang said.
That could buy the brain time, up to 24 or more, for the affected area to find other sources of blood.
Gerda Moneypenny could have been in the study's control group, getting only a false laser treatment, but her son doesn't think so.
"To me, it was a miracle because I'd been through four or five strokes with you, and I've never seen this kind of response," Bill said to his mother.
Within 12 hours, she could move her arms and legs and could speak.
"I'm getting along pretty well,” Gerda Moneypenny said.
Despite having to grow a new head of hair, she enjoys the same quality of life she had before her last stroke.
"So it was literally a medical miracle to me," Bill said.
Duke is another of 50 national testing sites for the device, called NeuroThera.
A previous study in other countries showed that 70 percent of the patients who got the treatment had significant improvement or almost full recovery.
For study purposes, they're only using the device on patients who have not received TPA. But Huang said that in the future, the two could be used together and buy more valuable time for the brain to heal itself.