Lighting the way for gentler cancer treatment

A new generation of organic optoelectronic materials under development in Scotland could lead to much less painful treatment for skin cancer, according to researchers.

The work is being undertaken by Prof Ifor Samuel at the Organic Semiconductor Centre at St Andrews University as part of wider investigations into organic semiconductors.

Samuel will investigate the medical applications of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) in photodynamic therapy — treatment that combines the use of light with drugs.

Using the OLEDs as a light source should make the treatment far less painful, but just as effective, according to Samuel.

‘Existing light sources are big, painful and intimidating lights which require the patient to remain still beneath them,’ he said. ‘We hope to develop an ambulatory treatment that will allow you to walk around wearing the light source.’

Current light sources used in photodynamic therapy are either semiconductor lasers or large arrays of inorganic LEDs at a high intensity, which can be extremely painful.

‘A lower intensity portable OLED light source would have to be applied for a longer time, but would be much less harsh,’ said Samuel.

The device is being developed in conjunction with Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, and could be in use within two years. The wider research will focus on developing advanced plasticlike organic materials which can be easily manipulated.

Plastic-like materials are easy to shape and process, and their properties can readily be changed for applications such as producing different colours in LEDs. The materials could be dissolved in solution and deposited using inkjet printing to make transistors, LEDs and lasers.

Samuel will collaborate with colleagues at Oxford University in developing dendrimers — snowflake-shaped molecules that could be used in devices such as digital cameras and solar cells. He will also investigate development of advanced lasers and optical amplifiers using organic materials.

The research will look into using these devices to allow one light pulse to switch another, which would be useful in high-speed data communication, he said.