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Researchers have developed a new phototherapy technology capable of substantially increasing efficiency — while also reducing the pain — of chemotherapy, according to a recent study published in the journal Nano.

The new phototherapy agent also minimizes side effects typically associated with chemotherapy, while eliminating cancer cells.

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New light-based chemotherapy only needs one shot

The research team — from Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) and under the leadership of Sehoon Kim from the Theragnosis Research Center — developed a new cancer-targeting phototherapeutic agent capable of eliminating cancer cells with almost no side effects.

The new agent only requires one injection and repeated phototherapy, and was made possible via the collaborative research between Professor Yoon-Sik Lee of Seoul National University and Professor June Ahn of Korea University.

As a cancer treatment modality relying on light, phototherapy technology involves the injection of a photosensitizer. It collects only in cancer cells — which are selectively destroyed when a laser is fired into the body.

Pros, cons of photodynamic therapy

This method has far fewer notable side effects than typical treatments like general chemotherapy or radiation therapy — which almost always cause damage to tissue surrounding cancer cells — which makes repeated treatment more feasible.

Chemotherapy is a treatment process for cancer — where drugs are introduced into the body to fight cancer. One of the most commonly used drugs is called cisplatin — which binds to tumor cell DNA and damages the structure, ultimately killing the cancer cells, New Atlas reports.

Photodynamic therapy is different. It introduces a metal complex into cancerous tumors and zaps it with lasers — creating a reactive species of oxygen that interact with and destroy cancerous cells (among others).

New peptide-based photosensitizer avoid pitfalls

Generally, photosensitizers’ effects last only for a single session, which means they must be administered once per treatment procedure. But the drawbacks typically associated with them have plagued their use.

Residual photosensitizer may gather in the skin or eyes, creating light-related side effects — so recipients of the treatment should probably isolate themselves from both sunlight and indoor lighting afterward, so the agent doesn’t continue to burn through human tissue.

However, Sehoon Kim and his KIST team employed peptides to selectively target cancer tissues — gathering themselves in a precise order to avoid the common problems typically associated with phototherapy technology.

New phototherapy treatment targets only cancer cells

In short, the research team’s peptide-based photosensitizer activates phototherapeutic effects in cancer tissue alone — via the employment of an internalizing RGD peptide (iRGD), which selectively enters and targets cancer tissues in combination with the modulation of its real-time reaction to light.

Upon injection of the new photosensitizer into a living body, body temperature activates it — sending it off to accumulate into a supramolecular arrangement determined by the research team — where it stores itself in and around the tumor. Once phototherapy begins, it can only destroy cancer cells — leaving the surrounding normal tissue unaffected.

Edging closer to possible cure for cancer in 2020s

“We developed a cancer-targeting peptide phototherapeutic agent that forms a depot through supramolecular self-assembly without additional excipients when injected in vivo,” said Director Sehoon Kim of KIST Center. “The developed phototherapeutic agent is expected to be useful in future phototherapy as it allows long-term repeated phototherapy without toxicity after only one injection around the cancer until the complete removal of the cancer, and has a simple formulation with a single component.”

Nobody wants to get cancer. In oneself or a loved one, the changes chemotherapy bring on both physically and emotionally can make for the better, but are often only for worse. But with new phototherapy methods like the one from this study, new hope is emerging that the 2020s may be the decade to cure cancer, once and for all.

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