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LouseBuster not just hot air, study says

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University of Utah professor Dale Clayton shows two versions of his invention, which gets rid of head lice.

University of Utah professor Dale Clayton shows two versions of his invention, which gets rid of head lice.

Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

The LouseBuster really works, a new study says.

The device, developed at the University of Utah, looks like a hair dryer and is designed to wipe out head lice on children. Currently, expensive chemical treatments and difficult combing sessions are used to rid children of the parasites.

Some chemicals used to kill head lice are dangerous while most of the rest don't work reliably. That is "because the lice have evolved resistance to a lot of the pesticides in head lice shampoos," U. biology professor Dale Clayton said in an interview Sunday.

But the LouseBuster he co-invented was designed to destroy a head louse infestation through a non-chemical treatment lasting about 30 minutes, with a combination of careful drying and heating.

The LouseBuster has three components, said Clayton.

First, the machine delivers heat to the hair; it's not as hot as a blow-dryer, he said. Second, the volume of air is twice that of a hair dryer. Third, a hand piece lifts hair in a particular way and exposes the roots, to destroy lice and their eggs.

"It's like a hand rake," he said. It lifts hair while the air blows in the opposite direction. Part of the challenge was to get the angles right so that this worked correctly.

A U. press release warned against parents trying to achieve the same results with a hair dryer, as that could burn the children.

Clayton told the Deseret Morning News that people say the idea is obvious. "If it is obvious it wouldn't have taken five years" to develop the LouseBuster, he added.

A study verifying the machine's efficiency has been published in the November issue of Pediatrics. Titled "An Effective Nonchemical Treatment for Head Lice: A Lot of Hot Air," the report shows that the invention has promise.

Other co-inventors of the LouseBuster are Joseph Atkin and Kevin Wilding, who worked in Clayton's lab as undergraduates.

A great deal of interest has greeted the study. CBS Television was prepared to show a segment about it tonight, he said.

Patents are pending for the LouseBuster, according to the university.

Larada Sciences, a U. spin-off company created with help from the Utah Centers for Excellence, is working toward commercial distribution of the LouseBuster. That may happen in a year or two. Clayton is the company's chief scientific officer.

"It's a medical device," he said. The developers are pursuing approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

"We've put an emphasis on safety concerns and testing, and we've had no problems at all. ... It does require a little bit of practice to use this device effectively."

The LouseBuster could be installed in school clinics. School nurses and physicians' assistants could be taught to use it. In fact, non-medical school officials could get training on its application.

But the LouseBuster is not designed for home use. "It's a big machine, so it's not something that would be marketable in its present incarnation to households," Clayton said.

Also, parents not trained to use the device could make mistakes.

Clayton's children, Mimi and Roger, came down with head lice about 10 years ago. He is an expert on lice that plague birds but did not know of a better treatment for head lice than chemicals or laborious daily combing.

"It's frustrating when you're an expert on lice and your kids get head lice and there's nothing you can do," he said. "That helped focus my interest on the problem a little bit."

Clayton also discovered that some researchers in Utah were having trouble keeping small insects alive because of the aridity. That led to the idea of using dry air to kill head lice.

According to the U., authors are Clayton; Brad Goates, a U. medical student who wrote his master's thesis about the LouseBuster; Atkin; Wilding; Kurtis Birch and Michael Cottam, who were undergraduates in Clayton's lab, and Clayton's wife, Sarah Bush, one of the directors of the Center for Alternative Strategies of Parasite Removal.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com