5-Aminolevulinic acid-based photodynamic therapy. Clinical research and future challenges

Cancer. 1997 Jun 15;79(12):2282-308. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1097-0142(19970615)79:12<2282::aid-cncr2>3.0.co;2-o.


Background: Photodynamic therapy (PDT) for cancer patients has developed into an important new clinical treatment modality in the past 25-years. PDT involves administration of a tumor-localizing photosensitizer or photosensitizer prodrug (5-aminolevulinic acid [ALA], a precursor in the heme biosynthetic pathway) and the subsequent activation of the photosensitizer by light. Although several photosensitizers other than ALA-derived protoprophyrin IX (PpIX) have been used in clinical PDT, ALA-based PDT has been the most active area of clinical PDT research during the past 5 years. Studies have shown that a higher accumulation of ALA-derived PpIX in rapidly proliferating cells may provide a biologic rationale for clinical use of ALA-based PDT and diagnosis. However, no review updating the clinical data has appeared so far.

Methods: A review of recently published data on clinical ALA-based PDT and diagnosis was conducted.

Results: Several individual studies in which patients with primary nonmelanoma cutaneous tumors received topical ALA-based PDT have reported promising results, including outstanding cosmetic results. However, the modality with present protocols does not in general, appear to be superior to conventional therapies with respect to initial complete response rates and long term recurrence rates, particularly in the treatment of nodular skin tumors. Topical ALA-PDT does have the following advantages over conventional treatments: it is noninvasive; it produces excellent cosmetic results; it is well tolerated by patients; it can be used to treat multiple superficial lesions in short treatment sessions; it can be applied to patients who refuse surgery or have pacemakers and bleeding tendency; it can be used to treat lesions in specific locations, such as the oral mucosa or the genital area; it can be used as a palliative treatment; and it can be applied repeatedly without cumulative toxicity. Topical ALA-PDT also has potential as a treatment for nonneoplastic skin diseases. Systemic administration of ALA does not seem to be severely toxic, but the advantage of using this approach for PDT of superficial lesions of internal hollow organs is still uncertain. The ALA-derived porphyrin fluorescence technique would be useful in the diagnosis of superficial lesions of internal hollow organs.

Conclusions: Promising results of ALA-based clinical PDT and diagnosis have been obtained. The modality has advantages over conventional treatments. However, some improvements need to be made, such as optimization of parameters of ALA-based PDT and diagnosis; increased tumor selectivity of ALA-derived PpIX; better understanding of light distribution in tissue: improvement of light dosimetry procedure; and development of simpler, cheaper, and more efficient light delivery systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aminolevulinic Acid / pharmacokinetics
  • Aminolevulinic Acid / therapeutic use*
  • Forecasting
  • Heme / biosynthesis
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Photochemotherapy / methods*
  • Protoporphyrins / metabolism
  • Research
  • Skin Diseases / drug therapy
  • Skin Neoplasms / drug therapy


  • Protoporphyrins
  • Heme
  • Aminolevulinic Acid
  • protoporphyrin IX