URMC, Lucifics Partner to Develop New Oral Cancer Treatment

“Photodynamic therapy has a lot to offer patients suffering from cancer of the oral cavity, but the complex anatomy and the difficulties created by scattered treatment light illuminating and potentially damaging sensitive normal tissue present significant technical challenges”, said Thomas Foster, Ph.D., a professor of Imaging Sciences at URMC. Foster’s lab has been working on various aspects of photodynamic therapy for more than 20 years.

Photodynamic therapy combines a class of drugs with light to selectively destroy cancer cells. The drug – called a photosensitizing agent – is injected into the patient and absorbed by the body’s cells. The drug tends to remain in cancer cells for a longer period of time. When exposed to a specific wavelength of light, often administered by a laser, the drugs produce a form of oxygen that kills nearby cells. This therapy is currently used to treat certain forms of oral cancer, in addition to other cancers. However, current oral cancer technologies have the potential to damage other healthy cells in the throat and mouth during treatment. 

Lucifics – founded in 2011 by University of Rochester alumnus William Cottrell and based in Massachusetts – is developing a new technology that more effectively focuses photodynamic treatment on cancer cells and shields other parts of the oral cavity from the reflected light that can cause the drug to activate and damage healthy tissue.

URMC and Lucifics have been awarded a Small Business Technology Transfer Phase I grant from the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) to build and evaluate single-use photodynamic devices. The partners will collaborate on the development of an initial set of devices which are anticipated to be ready for clinical testing within a year. The devices will be tailored to treat common oral cancer sites, including the lateral border of the tongue, ventral tongue, gumline, and floor of the mouth. 

“It is an outstanding opportunity to advance treatment for oral cancer in partnership with the University of Rochester,” said Cottrell, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester Institute of Optics in 2008 and currently serves as chief technology officer at Lucifics. “It is estimated that by 2030, there will be 790,000 cases of oral cancer worldwide, Our goal is develop a way to treat oral cancer effectively, but limit the traumatic side effects and aftermath that come with the current treatment methods.”

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