Written by Karen Selby, RN | Medically Reviewed By Dr. Andrea Wolf | Edited By Walter Pacheco

What is Photofrin?

In clinical trials, researchers found that this treatment can improve life expectancy in pleural mesothelioma patients, especially when combined with other treatments such as surgery.

The main photosensitizer used for pleural mesothelioma treatment is porfimer sodium, usually called Photofrin. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved this drug for use in other cancers, such as esophageal cancer, and recognized its potential in treating mesothelioma.

Because Photofrin may help treat rare cancer, the FDA designated it an orphan drug, which helps speed along the FDA approval process.

How Does Photodynamic Therapy Work?

Photodynamic therapy is administered during surgery when the chest cavity has been entered, and the tumors can be directly exposed to the lasers. It may be used with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and surgery, to fight cancer in multiple ways.

The treatment begins with administering a photosensitizing agent injected into the bloodstream before surgery. This drug is absorbed by healthy and cancerous cells but stays in cancerous cells longer. After one to three days, the photosensitizer has left most healthy cells but remains in mesothelioma cells. This is when light is administered during surgery, usually via laser, to activate the photosensitizer.

This light must be at a specific wavelength and color to trigger a reaction within the drug. Photofrin, for example, reacts to red light. Once the drug is activated, it produces a highly reactive form of oxygen. The oxygen affects all nearby cancer cells, prompting them to die. It may also damage the tumor’s blood vessels, thus cutting off the nutrient supply and killing cancer cells.

Which Patients Are Eligible?

Photodynamic therapy can only be used on areas of the body that light can reach, such as just below the skin or along the lining of internal organs. In the case of mesothelioma, it is used during surgery when the tumors are exposed. Because of this, the therapy is most effective in treating localized cancer that has not spread throughout the body. In addition, individuals with large tumors may not be suitable candidates for this therapy, as the light cannot penetrate the entire tumor.

Side Effects of Photodynamic Therapy

This treatment causes skin and eye sensitivity to light for about six weeks. Doctors advise patients to avoid sunlight and other bright light during this time. PDT may cause swelling, burning, pain or scarring in healthy tissues. Patients may also experience coughing, trouble swallowing, stomach pain, painful breathing or shortness of breath.

Study Results

Studies of photodynamic therapy in pleural mesothelioma patients have been successful in recent years, but some early studies showed no improvement when PDT was used. In a 1996 study, 63 pleural mesothelioma patients underwent surgery and chemotherapy, and half were randomly selected to receive PDT. Researchers found no significant difference in survival times based on the addition of PDT. Patients lived a median of 14.1 months without PDT and 14.4 months with it.

A 2004 study showed a substantial improvement in survival times when photodynamic therapy was added to surgery. Patients treated with surgery alone lived a median of 10 months, while patients treated with surgery and PDT survived a median of 13 to 14 months. Researchers concluded that the therapy showed promise in successfully treating mesothelioma and must be studied further.

A 2019 study published in Photochemistry and Photobiology reported the safety and outcomes of combining photodynamic therapy with proton radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Ten patients were included in the study. All were diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 pleural mesothelioma. Median survival was 30.3 months, significantly improving from the average life expectancy of 12 months.

A Canadian research team published their findings in 2021 about the potential of photodynamic therapy to treat metastatic disease in mesothelioma patients. The new approach uses immunotherapy and photodynamic therapy to shrink tumors throughout the body. A systemic immune response could improve outcomes for metastatic mesothelioma patients in multimodal combination therapy with other treatments.

Where Is Photodynamic Therapy for Mesothelioma Available?

Encouraging clinical trial results has led some of the country’s top cancer centers to offer photodynamic therapy to their patients. The Abramson Cancer Center in Pennsylvania and the Stanford Cancer Institute in California have this therapy available for mesothelioma patients who qualify for it. Brigham and Women’s Hospital, renowned for its mesothelioma program, is also equipped for PDT but does not usually use it in treatment.

Future of Photodynamic Therapy

Medical researchers seek to improve the efficacy of PDT and use it in more types of cancer, including peritoneal mesothelioma. Researchers hope to develop photosensitizers that specifically target cancer cells and have more toxic reactions. Doctors also hope to find a more effective means of administering the necessary light so that it can penetrate tissue and treat more extensive tumors.

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