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Photodynamic Therapy

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Photodynamic therapy is a newer mesothelioma treatment that uses light energy to kill cancer cells. Treatment involves injecting a photosensitizer drug into the patient before surgery. When the cells are exposed to light, it activates the drug to kill the cancer cells.

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In clinical trials, researchers found that this treatment can improve life expectancy in pleural mesothelioma patients, especially when used in combination 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 the 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 in conjunction with other treatments, such as chemotherapy and surgery, to fight the cancer in multiple ways.

The treatment begins with the administration of a photosensitizing agent, which is injected into the bloodstream before surgery. This drug is absorbed by cells, both healthy and cancerous, 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 in order 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, this means that 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 is unable to penetrate the entire tumor.

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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 as well. Based on the addition of PDT, researchers found no significant difference in survival times. 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 the journal Photochemistry and Photobiology reported on the safety and outcomes of combining photodynamic therapy with proton radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Ten patients were included in the study, and all of them were diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 pleural mesothelioma. Median survival was 30.3 months, which is a significant improvement from the average life expectancy of 12 months.

Where Is Photodynamic Therapy for Mesothelioma Available?

Encouraging clinical trial results have 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 normally use it in mesothelioma 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 larger tumors.

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Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate

Karen Selby joined in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the regional director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.

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11 Cited Article Sources

The sources on all content featured in The Mesothelioma Center at include medical and scientific studies, peer-reviewed studies and other research documents from reputable organizations.

  1. Abramson Cancer Center (2011). Mesothelioma and Pleural Disease Treatment. Retrieved from:
  2. Axcan Scandipharm Inc. (2003). Photofrin Case Study 1. Retrieved from:
  3. Brigham and Women's Hospital, Division of Thoracic Surgery (2010). Photodynamic Therapy with Photofrin. Retrieved from:
  4. Demmy, T.L. (2011). Surgery and Photodynamic Therapy in Treating Patients With Malignant Mesothelioma. Retrieved from:
  5. Food and Drug Administration (2008). Highlights of Prescribing Information: Photofrin Injection. Retrieved from:
  6. Food and Drug Administration (2011). Orphan Drug Designation: Photofrin. Retrieved from:
  7. Matzi, V. et al (2004). Polyhematoporphyrin-mediated photodynamic therapy and decortication in palliation of malignant pleural mesothelioma: a clinical pilot study. Interactive Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, 3, 52-56. Retrieved from:
  8. National Cancer Institute (2011). Photodynamic Therapy for Cancer. Retrieved from:
  9. Pass, H.I. (2001). Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma: Surgical Roles and Novel Therapies. Clinical Lung Cancer, 3(2), 102-117. Retrieved from:
  10. Stanford Cancer Institute (2011). Diagnosis and Treatment of Mesothelioma. Retrieved from:
  11. Rice, S.R. et al. (2018). A Novel Prospective Study Assessing the Combination of Photodynamic Therapy and Proton Radiation Therapy: Safety and Outcomes When Treating Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma. Retrieved from:

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Last Modified April 12, 2020

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