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New technology could expand use of photodynamic therapy

In this image, live cancer cells are green. Cancer cells that have undergone photodynamic therapy using the new UB approach — and are dead or dying — are red. The area that has been irradiated with the laser is marked by the white square.


Published May 15, 2014

“We expect this will vastly expand the applications for an effective cancer phototherapy that’s already in use.”
Tymish Ohulchanskyy, deputy director for photomedicine
Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is an effective treatment for easily accessible tumors, such as oral and skin cancer.

But the procedure, which uses lasers to activate special drugs called photosensitizing agents, isn’t adept at fighting cancer deep inside the body. Thankfully, that’s changing due to new technology that could bring PDT into areas of the body that were previously inaccessible.

Described May 11 in the journal Nature Photonics, the approach involves using near-infrared beams of light that, upon penetrating deep into the body, are converted into visible light that activates the drug and destroys the tumor.

“We expect this will vastly expand the applications for an effective cancer phototherapy that’s already in use,” says co-author Tymish Ohulchanskyy, UB research associate professor and deputy director for photomedicine at the university’s Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics (ILPB).

Doctors have used PDT to treat cancer for decades. Cancer cells absorb the drug, which is delivered to the tumor via the bloodstream or locally. Visible light then is applied to the site, which causes the drug to react with oxygen and creates a burst of free radicals that kill the tumor.

Unfortunately, visible light does not penetrate tissue well. Conversely, near-infrared light penetrates tissue well but doesn’t activate the drugs efficiently.

To solve this problem, some researchers are developing drugs that absorb near-infrared light. This method is limited, however, because stable and efficient near-infrared absorbing photosenzitizers are notoriously difficult to synthesize.

The UB-led team took a different approach, which uses the tumor’s natural environment to tune the light into the necessary wavelengths.

For example, the near-infrared laser beam interacts with the natural protein collagen, which is found in connective tissues. The interaction changes the near-infrared light to visible light, a process known as second harmonic generation. Likewise, natural proteins and lipids within the cells interact with near-infrared laser light and change it to visible light through another process called four-wave mixing.

Thus, visible light can be generated in tumors deep inside the body, and it can be absorbed by the drug. This activates the drug, which then destroys the tumor.

The procedure has numerous advantages, says the study’s leader, Paras Prasad, SUNY Distinguished Professor of chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, and medicine, and ILPB’s executive director.

“There are no long-term side effects for PDT, it’s less invasive than surgery and we can very precisely target cancer cells,” Prasad says. “With our approach, PDT is enriched to provide another tool that doctors can use to alleviate the pain of millions of people suffering from cancer.”

UB has applied for a patent to protect the team’s discovery, and the university’s Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (UB STOR) is discussing potential license agreements with companies interested in commercializing it.

The research is a collaboration between ILPB, Shenzhen University in China and Korea University in Korea, which Prasad is affiliated with. Other co-authors are Aliaksander Kachynski, Artem Pliss Andrey Kuzmin and Alexander Baev, all ILPB researchers, and Junle Qu of Shenzhen University.