A meeting of light and molecules

A meeting of light and molecules

Researchers aim to perfect more targeted therapies to kill certain cancers and bacteria
September 9, 2014

Bladder cancer is the fifth most common cancer in Canada and the most expensive to treat, costing the healthcare system $400 million annually. With the recent shortage of a vital drug in Canada for treating bladder cancer, the work of a Toronto-based company with Acadia University researchers to develop new therapies and reduce the risk of recurrence is more pertinent than ever.

This company which manufactures medical light devices is working with chemist Sherri McFarland to develop new therapies to target tumours in the bladder. McFarland designs new drugs by making light-sensitive molecules she has found to be effective in targeting and killing cancer cells. She supplies the company with these molecules and is currently helping it prepare them for testing in humans in early 2015.

To create these special molecules, known as photodynamic compounds, McFarland and her team test to see what wavelength of light they absorb. Absorbing light changes the molecule, making it toxic. The best molecules become toxic or get “turned on” quickly and turn off just as quickly when the light source is removed.

Inspired by this idea that “light plus molecule equals dead cells,” McFarland turned her attention to the microorganisms in the mouth. She spun off a company called Fenol Farm, Inc. in 2012 to develop an oral kit for people who suffer from plaque buildup — more than 79 million North Americans. The kit, which McFarland is scheduled to start selling to orthodontic clinics next year, consists of a mouth tray with an LED light and antibacterial toothpaste. The paste contains a light-sensitive plant extract derived from a plant that flourishes in Nova Scotia. When activated by the LED light, it kills the microorganisms that cause plaque.

Fenol Farm Inc. won $100,000 in Innovacorp’s I-3 Technology Start-up 2013-2014 Competition. The start-up is tackling oral bacteria that lead to enamel damage, cavities, gum disease and other health problems. The innovation combines plant extracts and light technology to prevent buildup of dental plaque. The treatment can be done at home and only takes a couple of minutes.

Animation credit: Devon Parsons, Eizzof Entertainment