Snoqualmie business looking to zap some cancers

Imagine a day when certain types of cancer can be zapped with a painless procedure.

Imagine a day when certain types of cancer can be zapped with a painless procedure. Imagine targeted tumor destruction with the main possible side effect being a bit of temporary sensitivity to sunlight. Imagine that the whole process takes about three hours.

Light Sciences Oncology in Snoqualmie is working to make that process a reality.

“If you were given the choice of chemotherapy versus lying on a table for three hours, I think it would be a very easy choice,” said Bob Littauer, vice president and chief financial officer of Light Sciences Oncology.

Located in the Cascade Business Park on Snoqualmie Ridge, Light Science Oncology has 22 employees and was formerly a wholly owned subsidiary of Light Sciences Corporation, established more than a decade ago by neurosurgeon James Chen and investment manager Craig M. Watjen, who also donated a large portion of money to Light Sciences Oncology.

In October of last year, Light Sciences Oncology raised $35 million in financing and is now an independent company.

It focuses on specific light therapy that primarily targets liver cancer, colorectal liver metastases and other solid tumors in the body at various stages of growth.

The active agent for tumor destruction is singlet oxygen, explained Littauer.

This molecule is generated when a specific wavelength of light interacts with a specific drug compound inserted into the body. The compound causes the oxygen in the surrounding environment to create singlet oxygen, which damages surrounding cells.

The light infusion technology that zaps the cells comes in the form of a 1.2-millimeter catheter-like “bulb” (actually 100 tiny encapsulated semiconductors). It emits a specific wavelength of light that is inserted in a biopsy-like procedure directly into the center of the tumor in an area about 2.25 centimeters by 4.25 centimeters.

Treatment takes about three hours, during which time the patient is conscious and the procedure is painless.

Minimal post-treatment temporary skin photosensitivity is the main potential side effect.

The number of times treatment would be needed would depend on the type of cancer and its development, Littauer said.

“[The cancer cells] are damaged in a way that causes them to die,” Littauer said, noting that the cells actually commit “self-suicide” because the cells realize they are damaged. “We’ve seen instances where the tumor is totally destroyed or at least a part of it.”

He added that not only is there destruction in the targeted area, but there can also be a “secondary kill-zone” that can destroy nearby cancerous cells.

The tumor could also be contained so that it never gets to the point of being a threat, he noted.

Though not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Light Sciences Oncology is entering into the third phase of its clinical trial process with a focus on treating hepatoma and metastatic colorectal cancer.

There is no effective treatment currently for hepatoma, Littauer said, noting that 20 percent or fewer are surgical candidates.

The trial studies Light Sciences Oncology’s technology in conjunction with and in comparison to standard treatment and care (chemotherapy).

Should the final phase of the study go well, the FDA could approve the treatment practice by as early as 2008.

Though the technology has existed before now, Littauer explained that it has not been widely used because of cost and access limitations.

Most do not get this far along in the FDA approval process, either, Littauer noted, because of the side effects.

“It has not been proved practical before now,” he said.

The company has to convince the FDA that there is enough benefit for the patients, which means that it has to show differences in survival rates for those who have used the treatment alone and/or along with standard treatment, he said.

Long-term studies would continue after approval and results would be taken into account to maintain approval status.

Test subjects are not selected through Light Sciences Oncology. They are selected through Light Sciences Oncology clinical research organizations in the United States and abroad that contact local hospitals.

They are not looking for volunteers, Littauer stressed.

“The number-one goal in biotech is to make a single contribution,” Littauer said. “Any extension of patient life is a good thing.”

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