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Device blows more than hot air; promises to get rid of head lice

SHARE Device blows more than hot air; promises to get rid of head lice

SALT LAKE CITY — It is an innocuous blast of hot air but it leaves head lice dead in their tracks.

"For a louse, it's like sticking your head out a window at 100 mph; they're going to get dried out," said Dale Clayton, University of Utah biology professor and founder of Larada Sciences, a company that produces the LouseBuster, a first of its kind medical device with a more than 95 percent efficiency rate.

Head lice thrive on the blood of their human hosts and have the ability to copulate and populate quickly, causing intense annoyance and sometimes pain and suffering for anyone itching with them. They're extremely contagious and are often difficult and expensive to eradicate, which is why the one-time treatment option provided by the LouseBuster is favorable among practitioners.

With funding from various sources, including the Utah Centers of Excellence program, researchers at the U. have been working with Clayton on the product for about 10 years. He had originally wanted to study parasites on birds, specifically feather lice, but because of Utah's dry air, it became impossible to keep the parasites alive, resulting in a need to install humidifiers inside the laboratory.

It got to a point where Clayton began asking whether similar desiccation could be effective in killing head lice. Turns out, the LouseBuster was the solution.

"That's what is great about a university. You have the freedom to pursue things you stumble onto," Clayton said. "It was a serendipitous finding."

He said head lice are one of the top reasons for school absences in the country, making it a very worthwhile cause.

Professional nitpickers are now using the LouseBuster in salons and treatment centers across the country as well as making house calls, with favorable results. Larada Sciences, which also offers the service locally, has sold about 150 units worldwide since May, when the FDA cleared it for production.

"Not only does it do what it says it is going to do, but it is a better way of getting rid of lice," Ilene Steinberg, who leases at least three machines for use at Lice Lifters in Lafayette Hill, Pa., said Monday. Pastry chef turned nitpicker, Steinberg has been de-lousing professionally for about four years and had almost burned herself out after four-hour-long treatments that always required follow-up.

The LouseBuster, she said, alleviates what had become "a very painstaking process."

Chemiclal-free, warm air is directed — at a rate of up to three times that of a hair dryer — at the scalp, killing the eggs that are stuck to the hair with a glue that the female louse releases with the egg. It is a quick enough procedure that lice have no time to react, therefore making the product "evolution-proof," said Clayton.

"It's the volume of air as much as the temperature that kills lice," he said, adding that the LouseBuster blows 138-degree air, which is cooler than a common hair dryer.

The device is being sold to nonprofit agencies for $2,000 and the company also has various leasing arrangements with trained and certified LouseBuster operators who provide treatments for $125 to $275 per person.

Larada Sciences CEO Larry Rigby said the device has the potential to be "very big," but since it is a new technology and methodology, he expects it to take some time. He figures there are about 20 million cases of head lice in the industrialized world afflicting people who can pay for the service. So far, the device has reached Australia and South America as well as many U.S. cities.

A study of the project will be published in the January issue of the Journal of Medical Entomology.

Rigby said the LouseBuster is the first of what he hopes are many marketable medical devices based on scientific principals he can offer to the public through the U. spinoff business.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com