Professor Stephen Bown

Starting cancer cures from day one

2nd July 2020

At Worldwide Cancer Research, we are all about taking the first step towards new cancer cures. But what was our first step? To find out, we spoke to Professor Stephen Bown, one of the first researchers to receive funding from Worldwide Cancer Research back in the early 1980s.

Stephen’s research career has focused on using lasers to treat many different diseases, particularly cancer.

With a background in physics before he went to medical school, Stephen is a pioneer in his field and was a key person involved in the establishment of the National Medical Laser Centre at University College London in 1984.

Researcher Stephen Bown

Pioneering laser therapy to treat disease

In the late 70s and early 80s, Stephen was looking at how to use endoscopes to direct laser beams to stop stomach ulcers bleeding. This led on to the use of lasers with endoscopes to relieve obstructions to major organs such as the gullet, major airways and bowels caused by advanced cancers. Stephen and his team treated the first oesophageal cancer patient in 1981 and these techniques are now used in routine clinical practice. He said:

“While we were studying the use of laser to treat disease, people kept coming to us and saying you know about lasers, we know about many cancers, can’t we work together? The difficult thing to overcome was that using lasers to treat stomach ulcers and unblock hollow organs was actually quite crude. To treat smaller tumours you need to be a bit more sophisticated.”

With support from Worldwide Cancer Research throughout the 80s and 90s, Stephen propelled Photodynamic Therapy (PDT), a less developed treatment for cancer, from the lab into the clinic.

In the 1980s, Stephen was awarded funding from Worldwide Cancer Research to study this experimental therapy. Research into PDT had already begun in labs around the world, but in a rush to get PDT into the clinic, some patients were suffering from complications caused by the effect of PDT on normal tissues adjacent to cancers.

What is PDT?

PDT involves the use of a drug that is triggered when activated by light.

For some types of early skin cancer, the drug is applied as a cream which can be activated by a range of sources of red light. It is widely available and gives good cosmetic results. For internal cancers, the light source is usually a laser and the drug is given by mouth or injection. PDT involves the patient taking the drug, which accumulates in the cancerous area. A laser is then used to shine light on the cancer, which activates the drug and causes local tissue destruction. Both the medicine and the laser are basically harmless until combined.

PDT is now available as a treatment option for patients with some types of cancer. And it can even lead to a cure for some people if used early enough.


Taking the first step

Stephen explained:

“We knew that to properly establish PDT as a technique we needed to understand the basics. My mission was to establish exactly what PDT did to a wide range of normal and diseased tissues. Destroying the cancer is relatively easy, what is difficult is destroying it where it joins the normal tissue in such a way that the treated organ can maintain or restore its normal structure and function.

Worldwide Cancer Research really helped us to understand what PDT did to normal tissue as well as the diseased tissue. This was vital for us to show how PDT could be used in cancer across a range of sites, including mouth, oesophagus, lungs, pancreas, prostate and bladder."

With support from Worldwide Cancer Research, Stephen was able to conduct the experiments that revealed in detail how PDT worked and in what cancers it could be used. His team were also able to demonstrate the clinical effectiveness of PDT in some of the first reported tests of the treatment on cancer patients in the UK.

PDT has found its place in today’s treatment arsenal as a therapy for early-stage cancer and is approved by the NHS for use in oesophageal, skin and oral cancers. It’s also a highly effective treatment for conditions such as Bowen’s disease, where some very early cancer cells have emerged on the outermost layer of the skin.

What is the future of PDT?

Stephen’s research into PDT has continued throughout his career.

His latest venture has been to team up with the US government and research groups in Boston and in India to develop technology that uses LED lights instead of a laser to activate the PDT drug. These drugs that accumulate in cancer cells and react to light can also be used to visualise early cancers in the mouth using a mobile phone, another valuable advance for countries with limited resources.

“We are currently testing our technology in India because mouth cancer is highly prevalent there and PDT may be able to offer a cure for early cases. The LED light source runs on a couple of AA batteries so there’s no reliance on electricity. We are trying to bring a relatively cheap curative option to an area of the world that can’t normally get access.”

Taking the first steps to fund new, innovative ideas is what sparks the discoveries that lead to kinder, more effective treatments. This was the vision that Worldwide Cancer Research was founded on over 40 years ago. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, we have been able to be there, starting cancer cures from day one.