The New York Times

New Throat Cancer Treatment Attacks with Beams of Light


Patients dying of throat cancer will soon be able to use light to help them swallow on their own. The Food and Drug Adiministration on Wednesday approved Photofrin, the first of a new type of treatment that uses special drugs to make tumors light-sensitive and then sends beams of light to kill the cancer cells. Photofrin was approved to help clear the esophagus when patients' tumors grow so big that the patient cannot swallow, but this so-called photodynamic therapy is also being tested against bladder, bronchial and other tumors. The "attractiveness of it is it only makes you sick where the light hits it," said Dr. Robert Temple of the Food And Drug Administration. Any tumor you can localize and shine a light on could potentially be treated this way. But patients are vulnerable to severe sun burns until the drug wears off - about 30 days.

The American Cancer Society estimates that esophageal cancer was incident in 12,100 Americans in 1995 and killed 10,900 them, slowly constricting their throats until they could not eat or even swallow their own saliva.

Standard therapy is to chip away at the tumor with a laser, Dr. Temple said. But patients whose tumors were too big for the laser to help have had no other options. Photofrin, manufactured by QLTPhototherapeutics Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a chemically modified version of a substance culled from pigs' blood called porfimer sodium. Patients are injected with Photofrin. Several hours later. doctors thread tiny fiber-optic cables on the tumor. The light switches on the Photofrin, making it produce substances called free radicals that kill cells.

Photofrin was not studied long enough to tell if it helped patients live longer, but it did give patients a higher quality of life because they could once again swalow on their own. That benefit lasted more than 69 days for half of the patients, but QLT Photo-therapeutics stopped counting them and could not say how soon after the study the throats reclogged, but median survival of patients was 115 days.