Lasers Help Prevent Unnecessary Head and Neck Surgery

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) may sound like something out of science fiction, but PDT is actually a highly targeted, minimally invasive way of treating many cancers. Although PDT has a long history of development dating back over a century, Roswell Park’s own Thomas Dougherty, PhD, pioneered its use for cancer in the mid-1970s. Dr. Dougherty and a team at Roswell Park developed the drug Photofrin, which they proved could be activated by laser light to destroy cancerous cells with great accuracy and minimal side effects. 

PDT can be used to treat many kinds of tumors, and currently I’m studying the use of PDT for head and neck cancer patients—particularly those whose cancer has recurred.

Even when a tumor of the head or neck is small, using surgery to treat it may require removing a large portion of tissue, which can leave the patient disfigured or dealing with other long-term effects. PDT allows us to target the small tumor and eradicate it while leaving the surrounding tissue largely intact. In fact, our results show that after the tumor has been destroyed, the tissue usually returns to its original state.

Larger tumors of the head and neck are trickier because using external laser light is not an effective option for these tumors. In these cases, inserting laser fiber directly into the tumor allows us to deliver targeted photodynamic therapy.

These examples demonstrate how versatile and effective PDT can be for many head and neck cancer patients. My goal is to continue refining these therapies so that they are readily available and easily delivered to almost any cancer patient.

You can read more here about our phase II clinical trial, just opened at the beginning of April 2014, that will use a unique and highly precise method of delivering interstitial photodynamic therapy to recurrent tumors of the head and neck.