Photobiomodulation and Cancer: What is the Truth?

Photobiomodulation and Cancer: What is the Truth?

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PBM and Cancer

We recently had the opportunity to collaborate on a project with Dr. Michael Hamblin, arguably one of the world's leading researchers in the field of photobiomodulation (PBM), which is the official medical term for red light therapy, in an effort to try and answer this question:

Is photobiomodulation beneficial for cancer patients?

Fortunately, our manuscript was accepted for publication by Photomedicine and Laser Surgery. For those that don't subscribe to this peer-reviewed journal, you can find the content below in its entirety, minus some of the figures included in the original submission.

As with all of our content on this site, this article is for informational purposes only and shouldn't be construed as medical advice. For any health-related condition, we highly recommend you consult with your trusted healthcare provider. With that said, we hope you enjoy this piece!


Photobiomodulation therapy (PBMT) is a rapidly growing approach to stimulate healing, reduce pain, increase athletic performance, and improve general wellness. Applying PBMT over the site of a tumor has been considered to be a contraindication. However, since another growing use of PBMT is to mitigate the side-effects of cancer therapy, this short review seeks to critically examine the evidence of whether PBMT is beneficial or harmful for cancer patients. Although there are a few papers suggesting that PBMT can be detrimental in animal models of tumors, there are also many papers that suggest the opposite, and that light can directly damage the tumor, can potentiate other cancer therapies, and can stimulate the host immune system. Moreover, there are two clinical trials showing increased survival in cancer patients who received PBMT.


Photobiomodulaton is the use of red or near-infrared (NIR) light to heal, restore and stimulate multiple physiological processes and to repair damage caused by injury or disease. PBM started out as what used to be known as “low level laser therapy, LLLT” in the late 1960s, and was clinically applied for wound healing and the relief of pain and inflammation in a wide range of orthopedic conditions. For many years, it was thought that there was something “special” about lasers and the monochromatic and coherent nature of the light in the laser beam. But, in the 1990s, light emitting diodes (LEDs) were introduced, and rapidly gained popularity due to their much lower cost, the absence of safety concerns that were associated with lasers, which previously had led to requirements for “laser safety training courses”. It is now widely accepted that the non-coherent light from LEDs behaves the same as coherent laser light for most medical applications. In addition, the ability to deliver reasonable power densities (up to 100 mW/cm2) over relatively large areas of the body, and to mix different wavelengths together (for instance red and NIR) are major advantages of LED arrays. An important consideration that applies to many areas of PBM is that of the “biphasic-dose response”, or Arndt-Schulz curve [1, 2]. This principle states that there are optimum parameters (energy density or power density) that provide a benefit to the particular disease, and if these parameters are substantially exceeded, the benefits disappear and can even lead to damaging effects if the dose is extremely high. This phenomenon is also called “hormesis” and has been comprehensively reviewed by Calabrese et al [3, 4].

Photobiomodulation and Cancer

Because PBM was shown to stimulate the growth of cancer cells in cell culture studies [5], and can also increase the aggressiveness of some cancer cells [6], some commentators have asserted that PBM may be contra-indicated in clinical use in patients with cancer [7]. However, not all experimental studies have found the same results. On the other hand, it was realized that PBM was highly effective in the mitigation of numerous distressing side-effects that occur as a result of a range of different kinds of cancer therapy [8, 9]. These side-effects can be so severe that they often lead to the suspension or discontinuation of the cancer therapy with consequent risk to the patient. Perhaps the single most effective indication for PBM (amongst all known diseases and conditions) is that of oral mucositis [10]. Oral mucositis is a common side-effect of many kinds of chemotherapy and of radiotherapy for head and neck cancer [11]. Other side-effects that are under investigation by PBM treatment are chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy [12], radiation dermatitis associated with breast cancer therapy [13], and lymphoedema as a result of breast cancer surgery [14]. Some years ago, when PBM was routinely carried out with laser beams directly applied to the affected tissue region, its use for the mitigation of cancer-therapy side effects was employed with the caveat that the laser should not be used directly over the site of the tumor. However, now that large-area LED arrays and even whole-body light bed systems are becoming more common, the question of whether these devices are safe for a patient with cancer needs to be addressed as pointed out by Sonis et al [15]. Moreover, individuals who are using PBM for general health improvement, or for an increase in athletic performance [16] are asking the question: what if I have an undiagnosed malignant or pre-malignant lesion?

Can Photobiomodulation Stimulate Cancer?

Despite the existence of numerous studies that have shown that PBM can increase the growth rate of cancer cells in cell culture [17], the number of studies that suggest that PBM can actually exacerbate or stimulate cancer growth in animal tumor models in vivo are relatively few. One study by Frigo et al compared the effects of PBM (660 nm, 2.5 W/cm2) delivered once a day for three days either at a low dose or a high dose in subcutaneous melanoma in mice [18]. The low dose (150 J/cm2) reduced the tumor size (not statistically significant), while the high dose (1050 J/cm2) significantly increased the tumor size. However, this study suffered from some problems such as the claim that a C57BL/6 tumor (B16F10) was grown in a non-syngeneic mouse strain (BALB/c). Another study from Rhee et al looked at PBM (650 nm, 100 mW/cm2) as a single dose to an orthotopic mouse model of anaplastic thyroid cancer [19]. However, these investigators used an immunodeficient nude mouse model, which does not accurately reflect most human patients. The tumor growth was faster in the PBM groups, HIF-1a and p-Akt were increased, while TGF-b1 expression was decreased. The third study looked at PBM in the Syrian hamster cheek pouch model of chemical carcinogenesis caused by application of DMBA [20]. Researchers applied PBM (660 nm, 424 mW/cm2) every other day for 4 weeks starting at the end of the cancer induction period (8 weeks of DMBA). More tumors in the PBM group were histologically graded as “poorly differentiated”, and presumably would have a worse prognosis.

Can Photobiomodulation Directly or Indirectly Attack Cancer?

When we consider the possibility that PBM can have a beneficial effect on cancer, it is important to realize that there are three possible ways by which this may happen. The first involves the direct effect of the light on the tumor cells themselves, and may be thought of as a deliberate use of the biphasic dose response curve to “overdose” the cancer cells [21]. This possible methodology has been championed by Da Xing’s laboratory in China [22]. They call this approach “high fluence low-power laser irradiation, HF-LPLI” and this group often uses a 632 nm HeNe laser delivering 1200 J/cm2 at 500mW/cm2, over 40 min [23]. After publishing several in vitro papers they carried out an in vivo study in BALB/c mice bearing EMT6 breast tumors [24]. A single dose of 1200 J/cm2 caused complete regression of tumors, which did not occur in rho-zero EMT6 tumors (lacking functional mitochondria). Moreover, since EMT6 tumors are known to be immunogenic, the mice that were cured of cancer showed some long-term immunological memory.

The second method relies on taking advantage of a differential effect of PBM between malignant cancer cells compared to the effects seen on healthy normal cells. This involves combining PBM with an additional cytotoxic anti-cancer therapy, so that it increases the killing of cancer cells, while at the same time protecting normal healthy cells. While this may appear “too good to be true”, there are some scientific reasons why it may, in fact, be the case. These considerations are related to the Warburg effect, by which the mitochondria of cancer cells change their metabolism to carry out aerobic glycolysis instead of oxidative phosphorylation [25]. This phenomenon occurs due to the rapid growth of tumor cells outpacing the development of a sufficient blood supply, forcing the cancer cells to become tolerant to chronic hypoxia. Glycolysis consumes much less oxygen than oxidative phosphorylation. The consequences of the Warburg effect are that malignant cells and normal cells may behave very differently in response to PBM. In cancer cells, where ATP supply is quite limited, the ATP boost given by PBM may allow the cancer cells to respond to pro-apoptotic cytotoxic stimuli with more efficiently executed cell death (apoptosis) programs which are heavily energy-dependent (i.e. require a lot of ATP [26]). On the other hand, in normal healthy cells that have an adequate supply of ATP, the effect of PBM produces a burst of ROS that could induce protective mechanisms and reduce the damaging effects of cancer therapy on healthy tissue. Although this favorable scenario remains a hypothesis at present, there are some published papers that suggest it could indeed be the case in some anti-cancer strategies, such as reports that PBM can potentiate the killing of cancer cells by photodynamic therapy [27] and also by radiation therapy [28]. These researchers have reported that, in theory, PBM increases cell death in cancer cells in response to cytotoxic stimuli. Alternatively, while in normal cells, PBM will exert its protective effect as is well known in the case of neurotoxins, for example [29].

The third mechanism, by which PBM could be beneficial to cancer patients, is its possible role in stimulation of the immune system to fight against the cancer. Ottaviani et al [30] showed in a mouse model of melanoma that PBM using three different protocols (660 nm, 50mW/cm2, 3J/cm2; 800 nm or 970 nm, 200mW/cm2, 6 J/cm2, once a day for 4 days) could all reduce tumor growth, increase the recruitment of immune cells (in particular T lymphocytes and dendritic cells secreting type I interferons). PBM also reduced the number of highly angiogenic macrophages within the tumor mass and promoted vessel normalization, which is another strategy to control tumor progression.

A recent paper from Brazil [31] used PBM (660 nm, 100 mW, delivering 35, 107, or 214 J/cm2) to the tumor site 3 times every two days starting 14 days after rat Walker sarcoma tumor implantation. They measured the expression of IL-1β, IL-6, IL-10, TNF-α by ELISA and COX-1, COX-2, iNOS, eNOS by RT-PCR in the subcutaneous tumor tissue. Although tumor response was not directly measured, they claimed that the lowest dose (35 J/cm2) produced significant increases in IL - 1β , COX - 2, iNOS, and significant decreases in IL-6, IL-10, TNF-α and concluded the 35 J/cm2 “produced cytotoxic effects by the generation of ROS causing acute inflammation”.

Is There Evidence of Clinical Efficacy?

A very interesting recent paper [32] reported that PBM could actually increase treatment outcome and progression-free survival in cancer patients. 94 patients diagnosed with oropharynx, nasopharynx, and hypopharynx cancer, were subjected to conventional radiotherapy plus cisplatin every 3 weeks. Preventive PBM was applied to nine points on the oral mucosa daily, from Monday to Friday, and lasted on average 45.7 days. The PBM parameters were (660 nm, 100 mW, 4 J/cm2, spot size 0.24 cm2). Over a follow-up period of 41 months, patients receiving PBM had a statistically significant better complete response to treatment than those in the placebo group (p=0.013). Patients subjected to PBM had better progression-free survival than those in the placebo group (p=0.030) and had a tendency for better overall survival. The mechanism(s) for this effect require more investigation. It could be that the avoidance of oral mucositis led to better nutrition and more complete chemoradiotherapy, while it is also possible that the PBM exerted a direct anti-cancer effect.

Santana-blank et al [33] carried out a Phase 1 trial of PBM on 17 patients suffering from a variety of “advanced malignancies”. They used a 904nm infrared laser, pulsed at 3 MHz, applied using a 2 mm-high top hat with a 10-mm beam diameter and placed at right angles to the surface of the patient’s skin in previously determined areas of closest proximity to the biologically closed electric circuits and the vascular interstitial closed circuit that would most efficiently carry the laser energy to the target tissues [33]. This approach was first described by Nordestrom [34] who inserted wires through the thoracic wall to reach pulmonary tumors and circulated electric current. Patients were given a laser device to use at home each day and were allowed to remain in the trial as long as possible. In addition to evaluation by the attending physicians, the patients were asked to keep a journal over the length of their time in the trial, and to record the time and duration of each PBM application as well as any sign, symptom, or problem/side effect experienced. No dose-limiting toxicity was observed. Five patients reported occasional headaches (grade 2), and four referred local pain (grade 2). Statistically significant increases in Karnovsky performance status (KPS) and quality-of-life (QLI) were observed in all of the follow-up intervals compared with pretreatment values. In the six surviving patients, one patient had a complete response, 1 partial response, 4 stable disease >12 months, and 1 progressive disease. In the patients that died during the trial, significant increases in QLI were observed during the first two intervals. Eight patients had stable disease >6 months and 2 had progressive disease. The overall response rate was 88.23% in these terminally-ill (late stage) patients.

Analysis of the peripheral blood leukocytes showed an initial increase in TNF-a followed by a decrease in survivors, and a progressive and constant increase in TNF-s levels and an increase in serum levels of sIL-2R in those who died [35]. The mechanisms operating in this clinical study require more investigation, but if it can be repeated, it could be very promising.

Finally, Russian investigators have reported the use of PBM in cancer patients, but it is difficult to retrieve details of the studies [36, 37].

Conclusions and Unanswered Questions

PBM is becoming a well-established approach to mitigate or prevent the development of cancer-therapy associated side-effects, especially oral mucositis. The more intriguing question is not merely whether PBM is safe and effective in cancer patients, but whether PBM can play an active role in cancer treatment? There are tantalizing reports that this may indeed be the case, but there are many questions still to be answered. The wide array of different devices and parameters that have been employed make this quite a complicated area. While the biphasic dose response is accepted in normal tissue, how it applies to malignant tissue is unclear. In some cases, it appears that a very high dose will create a cytotoxic level of ROS that can directly destroy the tumor. In other cases, the main effect of PBM appears to stimulate the immune system, and a low dose may be more effective. If the aim is to stimulate the immune system, then is it best to directly irradiate the tumor, or to direct the light to the bone marrow, the lymphatic organs, or even the whole body? What can be concluded, is that now is perhaps the time to lose the fear of exacerbating cancer by shining light on it, and start to plan well-controlled clinical trials, even if these must necessarily be in advanced patients who have run out of options. There is clearly a great number of new possibilities involving the combination of PBM with other forms of cancer therapy, that may allow us to take advantage of biochemical differences between cancer and normal cells to effectively work against the cancer.

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