A new, highly effective light therapy can target and kill cancer cells

The treatment may help cancer patients live longer.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Malignant cancer cells.koto_feja / iStock

The promise of cancer therapies offers renewed hope for the many who suffer from the disease. In the latest news in cancer treatment, a European team of engineers, physicists, neurosurgeons, biologists, and immunologists from the U.K., Poland, and Sweden has conceived of a new form of photoimmunotherapy (in other words, light-based) that targets and destroys cancer tumors in patients with impressive efficiency, according to a report by The Guardian published on Friday.

The world’s fifth major cancer treatment after surgery

The new therapy is being touted as the world’s fifth major cancer treatment after surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and immunotherapy. And, crucially, the concept behind it is quite simple.

The light-activated therapy makes cancer cells glow in the dark helping surgeons identify the tumors and effectively get rid of them. The researchers undertook a world-first trial in mice with glioblastoma.

They found that the novel treatment lit up even the tiniest cancer cells, wiping out any residual cells left over from surgery. But the positive effects didn't stop there. The treatment triggered an immune response that could empower the immune system to protect itself from the cancer coming back.

“Brain cancers like glioblastoma can be hard to treat and, sadly, there are too few treatment options for patients,” the study leader, Gabriela Kramer-Marek, told The Guardian. “Surgery is challenging due to the location of the tumours, and so new ways to see tumour cells to be removed during surgery, and to treat residual cancer cells that remain afterwards, could be of great benefit.”

“Our study shows that a novel photoimmunotherapy treatment using a combination of a fluorescent marker, affibody protein and near-infrared light can both identify and treat leftover glioblastoma cells in mice," added Kramer-Marek in the report. "In the future, we hope this approach can be used to treat human glioblastoma and potentially other cancers, too.”

A multidisciplinary effort

The innovative research was largely funded by the Cancer Research U.K. Convergence Science Centre at the ICR and Imperial College London.

“Multidisciplinary working is critical to finding innovative solutions to address the challenges we face in cancer research, diagnosis and treatment — and this study is a great example,” said Professor Axel Behrens, the cancer stem cell team's leader, based in the ICR, who's also the scientific director of the Cancer Research U.K. Convergence Science Centre.

“This research demonstrates a novel approach to identifying and treating glioblastoma cells in the brain using light to turn an immunosuppressive environment into an immune-vulnerable one, and which has exciting potential as a therapy against this aggressive type of brain tumor," added Behrens, in the report.

Photoimmunotherapies are an increasingly promising set of therapeutic options that may help people live longer and healthier, post-treatment, added Charles Evans, the research information manager at Cancer Research U.K. He further noted that the new procedure had to overcome obstacles before being widely accepted, but also emphasized that he was “excited to see how this research will develop”.

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