PHILADELPHIA — Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with the Roswell Park Cancer Institute have received an $8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study the effects of photodynamic light therapy (PDT) in patients with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive and deadly cancer that most often manifests itself in the lining of the lungs and is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. The grant will fund a clinical trial and additional studies looking at the effects of PDT on the patient’s immune response, the tumor cell itself, and the blood vessels surrounding the tumor.
Approximately 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year in the U.S., with numbers expected to rise worldwide due to past uncontrolled exposure to asbestos.
“Mesothelioma is a cancer for which there is currently little to no hope for a cure,” says Eli Glatstein, MD, the Principal Investigator of the program project grant and professor and vice chair of Radiation Oncology, and member of Penn’s Mesothelioma and Pleural Program, one of the world’s leading Centers in the research and treatment of mesothelioma. “This trial represents a major step in understanding the combination of treatment modalities that will offer patients the best hope for survival and extended remission.”
The study, which expects to enroll 102 patients over four years, will administer Photofrin, a photosensitizing agent that makes cancer cells more sensitive to dying from light therapy, to trial participants 24 hours prior to surgery. Patients will undergo a radical pleurectomy, the removal of the pleura or lining of the lung along with the tumor cells contained within. They will then be randomized to two arms: half will receive PDT intraoperatively via an intense laser inserted in the chest cavity during the surgery, along with post-operative standard chemotherapy; and half who will receive only post-operative chemotherapy. Photofrin absorbs the light from the laser and produces an active form of oxygen that can destroy residual microscopic cancer cells left behind after surgery. Radical pleurectomy allows mesothelioma patients to keep their lung and is associated with better postoperative quality of life and improved survival compared with other common definitive mesothelioma surgeries.
“PDT has been a part of our treatment regimen along with a lung-sparing surgery for many years, but a randomized clinical trial such as this remains necessary to prove its efficacy,” says Glatstein.
PDT is known to kill cancer cells, but researchers also seek to understand the patient’s immune response, the tumor microenvironment and the blood vessels in and surrounding the tumor in three additional studies funded under the grant.
The second project will examine the process by which PDT works to destroy tumor cells and look at whether there is an agent—a drug or other therapy—that can boost its effects.
The third project will look at whether certain pathways roused during surgery may play a key role in inflammation and cell growth and thus contribute to treatment failure in any way, and whether inhibiting these pathways will improve the efficacy of intraoperative PDT.
Finally, the team will study the vasculature of the tumor in patients following PDT and evaluate any changes in the vascular environment as a result of intraoperative PDT and the potential for modulation to improve the efficacy of the treatment.
“This trial will help us understand how PDT works in the body and what we may be able to do in the future to improve the body’s response to the therapy,” says Glatstein.
Other key investigators include Joseph Friedberg, MD, Thoracic Surgery; Keith Cengel, MD, Theresa Busch, MD, and Chuck Simone, MD, Radiation Oncology; and Steve Albelda, MD, Pulmonary Medicine.
Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.6 billion enterprise.
The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $494 million awarded in the 2019 fiscal year.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.
Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 43,900 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.
Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2019, Penn Medicine provided more than $583 million to benefit our community.