Project: Research council

Project Details


The main aim of this project is to design new drugs for photodynamic therapy (PDT) which is a treatment that can be used for destroying cancers and killing infectious bacteria. The key feature feature of PDT is that it uses a light-activated drug known as a 'photosensitiser'. When light activates the drug this results in a toxic effect to tumour cells or bacteria leading to destruction of the tumour or healing of the bacterial infection. In effect, the light 'switches on' the drug but only in areas exposed to light. We propose to look at a new type of drug based on 5-aminolaevulinic acid (ALA). This is a natural compound present in many cells but normally at very low levels. However if cells or bacteria are exposed to high concentrations of ALA then a photosensitiser is produced (a porphyrin) which absorbs light over a wide range from red to blue and can therefore be used for PDT treatment. For example, a skin tumour can be treated by first covering the tumour with a lotion containing the ALA which is then left for a few hours. After ALA has seeped into the tumour, light is shone onto it for a few minutes to kill the tumour cells. Alternatively, a solution of ALA can be injected or given orally for the treatment of tumours inside the body where an endoscope can be used to guide the light onto the tumour. One main problem with using ALA however is that it is not quickly taken up by cells. We plan to change its chemical structure so that cells or bacteria can absorb it more easily, specifically by attaching amino acids to the ALA to help its uptake by cells. After entering the cell the drug would break down to release the ALA. If the modified ALA drug can enter cells more easily then in principle it should be more effective for tumour treatment, and since amino acids are natural compounds which make up proteins these new drugs should be safe to use. As well as treating cancers, there are several types of bacterial or even fungal infection which can be treated using PDT. One advantage of PDT for treating bacteria is that bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be treated. For example, burn wounds often become infected and in this case the PDT drug can be applied to the wounds and then illuminated after the drug has penetrated the infected area. If the new types of ALA drug can be taken up more efficiently by the bacteria then again the PDT treatment should be more effective. We also hope to design modified ALA drugs that are broken down specifically by bacteria and not by healthy cells by attaching amino acids whose structures are the mirror image of those which are normally found naturally.
Effective start/end date26/07/0625/07/09


  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council