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Developing new and improved treatments takes time. Something Professor Stephen Bown, at the National Medical Laser Centre in University College London, knows only too well. He has been studying Photodynamic therapy (PDT) for more than 20 years, and was funded by Worldwide Cancer Research for 11 of these.

PDT uses a light-sensitive drug that gets drawn towards tumours. The drug only works when activated by red laser light, which can be directed to the cancerous area. Treated areas heal remarkably well, meaning less medical intervention after the treatment and minimal upset for the patient. PDT can also now be used internally, applied by remote control – light delivered under image guidance by laser fibres passed though needles meaning no need for open surgery.

With our funding, Professor Bown tested PDT in many different tissues and organs to ensure it was safe to use in patients. He said, “It was Worldwide Cancer Research’s support that enabled us to do the research that made it safe to use the drug ALA, and other PDT drugs, for early cancers of the head and neck.”

PDT is a particularly attractive option for tumours of the mouth as it may reduce the need for surgery and radiotherapy with their associated side effects like impacting swallowing. There is also a big cosmetic advantage as there is less scarring. This can have a considerable impact on a person’s quality of life if the tumour is on a prominent like the lips.”

Another of Professor Bown’s Worldwide Cancer Research grants helped PDT become a licensed Barrett’s oesophagus treatment. Barrett’s oesophagus (BO) is a common condition that can sometimes lead to cancer of the oesophagus (food pipe). The same technique is now used for some very early lung cancers in patients who are not fit for more radical treatment.

He concluded “Without research like this, funded by your supporters, we would never get better treatments, and survival rates would never improve.”