Light therapy could be a new approach to treating patients with pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to treat, largely because of the location of the pancreas close to major arteries and vital organs, and the effects of a poorly functioning pancreas on the rest of the body. It is one of the top 10 leading causes of death from cancer worldwide, and in the UK kills around 6500 people every year.

Doctors gave intravenous photosensitising agent (meso-tetrahydroxyphenyl chlorin) to 16 patients with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Three days later they inserted up to six needles, carrying laser fibres delivering light, through the skin and directly into the tumour. The youngest patient was 46; the eldest was 77. The average time from diagnosis to treatment was around 2.5 months.

The treatment shrank the area of viable tumour, which in most patients, had been large. Almost half of the patients were still alive one year later; two survived two years; and one managed 30 months. This is much better than would be expected for pancreatic cancer, which carries an average prognosis of six to 10 months, say the authors.

There were few serious side effects and none of the patients died from their light treatment. Patients were able to start eating and drinking within 48 hours, and they left hospital 10 days after their treatment. And all of them were able to spend at least some time at home with their families; only three spent more than 20 per cent of their survival time in hospital.

Light therapy is not a cure for the disease, and this is the first time that it has been used for pancreatic cancer, so the research is in its early stages, say the authors. But the results are encouraging. And they conclude that photodynamic therapy may be useful for patients in whom surgery is not an option, and that it can be combined with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, if required.

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