Laser-activated cancer-fighting drug trial

Harry Whelan, MD laser fiber sphere above insertion into brain Phase II trial of Photofrin and photodynamic therapy in adult patients laser MRI scan of fanaplsticependymoma

A laser-activated photosensitive dye is being tested as a treatment for aggressive brain tumors. The Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) has begun a Phase II trial of Photofrin and photodynamic therapy in adult patients at Froedtert Hospital, a protocol funded by Concordia Healthcare.

Harry T. Whelan, MD, the Bleser Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics and Hyperbaric Medicine at MCW and an investigator at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Research Institute, is the lead investigator for the study.

The therapy consists of a two-step treatment process in which Photofrin, a photosensitizing drug, is injected into the blood stream and accumulates in cancer cells. Next, a laser light activates the drug, which then directly attacks cancer cells. Additionally, the laser light itself damages the blood vessels feeding the tumor.

“Patients with high-grade gliomas in particular have a very poor prognosis,” said Dr. Whelan. “Photodynamic therapy with Photofrin has the potential to add to the multi-modal approach of surgery and chemotherapy by providing another treatment option for patients with rare cancers for which there is no clear standard of care.”

The MCW study will evaluate the effect of Photofrin on 30 glioma brain tumor patients. Everyone in the study will receive Photofrin (porfimer sodium) for injection and be treated with red light emitted by a red laser. The light will be sent from the laser to the surface of the brain where the tumor is located using a light transmitting fiber. The fiber will have a tiny knob at the end that spreads the light out evenly in all directions.

Dr. Whelan also is conducting a Phase 1 clinical trial of PDT with Photofrin in children and adolescents, from newborn to 18 years old, who have recurrent or progressive brain tumors. The trial is being conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Research Institute and MCW, one of the few centers in the United States with experience utilizing PDT technology for the treatment of brain tumors.

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Harry T Whelan, MD,
Bleser Professor of Neurology

(414) 266-7544


This study will be aimed at investigating the effectiveness of a treatment for brain tumors called Photodynamic Therapy, or PDT. Briefly, a subject will receive a light-sensitive drug, called Photofrin®, the day before a tumor removal surgery. The next day, after the tumor is removed, red light from a laser will be shone into the tumor cavity through a light-diffusing sphere. This light will activate the photosensitizer, and possibly kill any tumor cells that may be left.

We plan to measure how long the subject may go without a new tumor regrowth, and overall how long subjects survive. We will compare these results to typical results to see if we are seeing any improvements.

Objective: To define the antitumor activity of Photofrin® and laser light activation within the confines of a Phase II study.

Clinical Trial Info

This study is currently recruiting participants. Identifier: NCT01966809