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Health Care

Japan university to set up institute on new cancer treatment

World's first research center for photoimmunotherapy plans to open in 2022

Dr. Hisataka Kobayashi, who developed photoimmunotherapy, will head the new research institute at Kansai Medical University.

OSAKA -- Kansai Medical University in Osaka Prefecture will establish the world's first research institute focusing on a new cancer treatment called photoimmunotherapy next April.

Dr. Hisataka Kobayashi, a senior investigator at the U.S. National Institutes of Health who developed photoimmunotherapy, will become the head of the institute in western Japan. He told reporters on Monday that the therapy could be first applied to patients with breast cancer, as well as facial and neck cancers, in the hope of providing a new option for a variety of cancer patients.

In photoimmunotherapy, which is billed as a fifth cancer treatment, alongside surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy, the patient is given a special drug that binds to specific cancer cells, and then those cells are destroyed when the drug reacts to near-infrared laser light.

The new treatment was invented by Kobayashi and developed by the predecessor of Rakuten Medical, a U.S. unit of Japanese internet giant Rakuten Group, which obtained a patent license. The therapy drew attention when then-U.S. President Barack Obama referred to it in his State of the Union address in 2012. 

According to a clinical trial conducted in the U.S. by Rakuten Medical, cancer either disappeared or shrank in 13 out of 30 head and neck cancer patients for whom no conventional treatment had worked, a success rate of 43%.

Last September, Rakuten Medical Japan became the world's first company to obtain a manufacturing and distribution license in Japan. The therapy is approved only in Japan. As of mid-March, photoimmunotherapy had been introduced at nearly 20 hospitals nationwide, including the National Cancer Center Hospital East in Chiba Prefecture and Aichi Cancer Center Hospital in Aichi Prefecture.

The institute to be established by Kansai Medical University will have about 30 researchers. Photoimmunotherapy is now limited to treatment of head and neck cancers, which are easily accessible with a laser beam. The institute will conduct research to broaden the scope of the therapy to patients with colorectal and skin cancers.

Technical developments will be required so that laser beams can irradiate spots deep within the body endoscopically and to suppress side effects by adjusting general immunity.

"Photoimmunotherapy is a promising treatment for patients of breast cancer, esophageal cancer and cervical cancer, but we want to make sure that the therapy will be effective in 80% of cancer patients in the future," Kobayashi said.

Photoimmunotherapy could be used with the revolutionary cancer drug Opdivo, developed by Kyoto University professor Tasuku Honjo, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

The institute will also conduct clinical trials. "We want to join hands with Rakuten Medical, particularly on a high level of clinical trials," Kobayashi said.

"We want to provide support for the development of cancer treatment as much as possible," said a Rakuten Medical Japan representative. To improve the efficacy of the treatment, the company will partner with Kansai Medical University's clinical department to check on patients' cancer tissues.

Prices for photoimmunotherapy treatment drugs vary depending on the body size of patients, but each dose will cost about 4 million yen ($36,500) on average and can be used in up to four treatments. The maximum medical expenses borne by the patient will be limited to about 300,000 yen per dose, under national medical insurance and other insurance.

Rakuten Medical is conducting a clinical trial of photoimmunotherapy with immunologic agents in the U.S. for patients of head and neck cancers and skin cancer. The National Cancer Center Hospital East is also conducting a doctor-led clinical trial of photoimmunotherapy for esophageal cancer patients and plans to do so with stomach cancer patients as well.

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