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Three ways lasers are helping cancer research

Did you know that lasers are being used in cancer research and helping to find a possible cure?

Cancerous tumours form when abnormal cells divide in an uncontrolled way until, in some cases, they spread into other tissues. There are more than 200 different types of cancer, with one in two people in the UK being diagnosed cancer in their lifetime. Even if cancer doesn’t affect you directly, it will likely affect someone you know within your lifetime.

The Central Laser Facility’s (CLF) powerful lasers, Octopus, Ultra and Gemini are helping with the advancement of 21st century cancer research.

Here are three ways that the CLF is progressing vital cancer research.

Using lasers for photodynamic therapy (PDT)

Imagine a cancer treatment that can specifically target tumours while leaving the rest of the body and healthy cells, unaffected. Great, right?

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) might be the answer!

PDT is a method of treatment that uses special drugs called photosensitising agents, along with light to kill cancer/abnormal cells. The drugs only work after they have been activated or “turned on” by certain kinds of light.

Octopus’ laser light activates the drug at a specific target area with ultra-short pulses of light (that travel at one quadrillionth of a second). A traditional laser can activate these special drugs, but would not be targeted and may risk activating other drugs in a patient. Red light penetrates the tissue more precisely and can target an exact area.

Researchers are able to tell where the drug is in the body because they can detect the fluorescence when it is inactive. When it reaches the target and is activated using light it stops having those fluorescent properties.

PDT is already available as a treatment option in hospitals. Current research is aiming to adapt lasers to be more compact for flexible treatment and create a smaller table-top laser system, suitable for use in clinics.

For more info on the study, visit: CLF

Using lasers to investigate cancer-forming proteins.

Laser research is paving the way to create individual treatment plans that can be tailored to each patient’s requirements!

The surface of cells have protein molecules that act as switches to turn cell growth on and off. Mutations in these proteins can lead to the development of cancer. Lasers in Octopus are used to light up individual switching molecules, monitoring their behavior and measuring how they react to drugs.

The lasers show different “fingerprints” for normal molecules and for different types of cancers. Even the same type of cancer can have different molecular behavior in different patients.

By focusing on the behaviour of these proteins that control cell growth, researchers at the CLF hope to provide a personalised approach to medicine/ drug treatment. Lasers can identify differences in behaviour of proteins in individual patients that should allow clinicians to choose the best treatment for each person.

At the moment analysis of the protein “fingerprints” is time-consuming and has to be done by a highly skilled scientist. The CLF is developing the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to automate the fingerprinting process that will allow it to be used routinely in hospital laboratories for the analysis of patient biopsies.

Using lasers to mimic ionising radiation

Radiation is effective as a cancer treatment because it can damage the DNA within cells and therefore kill them off, but it can also kill or damage nearby cells. When radiation is used to treat cancer cells, it must be targeted very carefully.

Proton therapy is far more precise and is able to deliver more targeted radiation damage than conventional X-ray radiotherapy - which is why it is used for targeting cancers on the brain, or particularly vulnerable patients, such as children.

A research project used the CLF’s Gemini laser to investigate the effects of irradiating human skin cells with a proton beam coming from a new type of particle accelerator based on very intense laser pulses, that is a key step before laser accelerators can be adopted in a clinical environment to treat cancer. The project looks specifically at how DNA damage in human skin cells is repaired after being targeted by a laser accelerated proton beam compared to how it is repaired after using conventional proton accelerator sources.

The research shows that the effect is similar, suggesting that laser proton beams could be used to target cancer cells as successfully as conventional particle accelerators that are already in use now.


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Last updated: 31 July 2019

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