PROFESSOR Zhang Yong and Assistant Professor John Ho, who are respectively from NUS Biomedical Engineering and NUS Electrical and Computer Engineering have developed a way to wirelessly deliver light into deep regions of the body to activate light-sensitive drugs for photodynamic therapy (PDT), a powerful light-induced cancer treatment.
PDT is often limited to surface cancers due to the low penetration of light through biological tissue. The novel wireless approach of light delivery enables PDT to be used on the inner organs of the body with fine control. This technology could potentially enable PDT to be used to treat a wider range of cancers, such as brain and liver cancer. Findings of the NUS Engineering team’s study were published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on 29 January 2018.
Asst Prof Ho said, “Our approach to light delivery will provide significant advantages for treating cancers with PDT in previously inaccessible regions. Powered wirelessly, the tiny implantable device delivers doses of light over long time scales in a programmable and repeatable manner. This could potentially enable the therapies to be tailored by the clinician during the course of treatment.” Asst Prof Ho is also a Principal Investigator at the Biomedical Institute for Global Health Research and Technology (BIGHEART) at NUS.
PDT is a treatment method that uses a light-sensitive drug, called a photosensitiser, that is triggered by a specific wavelength of light, to produce a form of oxygen that kills nearby cells. The treatment offers a precision approach to cancer therapy that overcomes many of the whole-body side effects of classical drugs such as chemotherapy. In addition, PDT shrinks or destroys the tumours by damaging blood vessels in the tumour, preventing the cancer cells from receiving necessary nutrients. PDT may also activate the immune system to attack the tumour cells.
So far, PDT has been limited to the treatment of surface cancers. Traditional light sources such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or lasers may be used for surface tumours, such as skin cancer, but the low penetration of light through tissue limits the depth to less than a centimetre. To examine the inner lining of some organs, such as the oesophagus, an endoscope – a thin, lighted tube used to look at tissues inside the body – can be used to insert a fibre optic cable. However, the other regions cannot be easily accessed by this way. For organs such as the brain or liver, the organ must be exposed by surgery before PDT can be used.
The NUS Engineering team’s novel approach of enabling PDT to be used for the inner organs of the body is achieved by inserting a tiny wireless device at the target site, extending the spatial and temporal precision of PDT deep within the body. This miniaturised device, which weighs 30 mg and is 15 mm3 in size, can be easily implanted and uses a wireless powering system for light delivery. Once the device has been implanted at the target site, a specialised radio-frequency system wirelessly powers the device and monitors the light-dosing rate.
The researchers demonstrated the therapeutic efficacy of this approach by activating photosensitisers through thick tissues (more than three centimetres), which are inaccessible by direct illumination, and by delivering multiple controlled doses of light to suppress tumour growth.
“This novel approach enables ongoing treatment to prevent recurrence of cancer, without additional surgery. The application of the technology can also be extended to many other light-based therapies, such as photothermal therapy, that face the common problem of limited penetration depth. We hope to bring these capabilities from bench to beside to provide new opportunities to shine light on human diseases,” said Prof Zhang.
The study was supported by the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Tier 3 grant.
The team is now working on developing nanosystems for targeted delivery of photosensitisers, as well as coming up with minimally invasive techniques for implanting the wireless devices at the target site, and looking into integrating sensors to the device to monitor the treatment response in real-time.