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  • Light Is Cancer’s Latest Foe

Mar 2012

The race to cure a killer disease first got federal support back in 1937, when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Act. On Jan. 3, 1938, the National Advisory Cancer Council recommended approval of the first cancer research fellowships.

Decades of research, both privately and federally funded, have certainly broadened our understanding of this disease – about the causes, risk factors, treatments and more – yet so much about cancer is still unknown or not well understood. Meanwhile, cancer deaths are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 13.1 million deaths expected in 2030, according to the World Health Organization.

In its 2012 annual plan and budget report, Cancer: Changing the Conversation, the NCI discussed our new understanding of the disease and its complexity as well as the “range of opportunities to confront its many incarnations.”

The report also described a vital opportunity to speed up cancer study and treatment. “The emerging scientific landscape offers the promise of significant advances for current and future cancer patients, just as it offers scientists at the National Cancer Institute – and in the thousands of laboratories across the United States that receive NCI support – the opportunity to dramatically increase the pace of lifesaving discoveries where progress has long been steady but mostly incremental.”

Biophotonics is part of that emerging scientific landscape. A great deal of effort is going into applying light to cancer research, diagnosis and treatment throughout the photonics community, with coherence imaging for cancer diagnosis among the topics getting a lot of attention lately. There also is a growing understanding among researchers about just what it will take to “increase the pace of lifesaving discoveries.”

In “Moving Noninvasive Cancer Imaging into the Clinic” (page 28), BioPhotonics news editor Gary Boas reveals the challenges researchers face in getting their light-based technologies into clinical trial and use, and talks with two researchers working to move new imaging options into clinical use. In the article, Jon Holmes, CEO of Kent, UK-based Michelson Diagnostics Ltd., advises “physics and engineering groups should closely partner with clinical teams and work with them on a specific clinical need over a long period of time (decades) in a focused manner with a clear long-term goal of developing an exploitable device evaluated with clinical trials. Funders should also actively support this type of collaborative work.”

BioPhotonics features editor Lynn Savage contributes two reports on the topic of cancer. “PDT for Cancer Depends on Improved Photosensitizers” (page 24) explains how photodynamic therapy could be the future of cancer treatment.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is proving to be a more than viable option for cancer treatment. “Compared with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, PDT is more selective, causing far less damage to healthy cells near cancer-ous targets due to the precise way in which photosensitizers can locate and infiltrate tumor cells.”

In his second article, “Transoral Laser Microsurgery Fights Laryngeal Cancer” (page 31), Lynn says that, “thanks to laser surgery refinements, ‘your life or your voice’ is a choice fewer people in the world have to face.” In the US alone, 10,000 people are diagnosed each year with laryngeal carcinoma, according to the American Cancer Society. This cancer affects the vocal cords and the connective tissues surrounding them, and laser microsurgery could help save both lives and voices.

Despite the very long strides taken over the past few decades, there is much more work to be done to further our understanding of this disease of many parts. Asking new questions based on the growing body of knowledge, finely focusing and directing research, and adequately funding those efforts will go a long way toward achieving the ultimate goal of many fewer deaths from cancer. Light and the dedicated people in this industry who harness it to understand this killer are bringing new direction to the fight.

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