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Thomas J. Dougherty, PhD, Father of Photodynamic Therapy, Dies at Age 85


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Thomas J. Dougherty, PhD

Thomas J. Dougherty, PhD

Thomas J. Dougherty, PhD, the developer of modern photodynamic therapy and Chief Emeritus of Roswell Park’s Photodynamic Therapy Center, died October 2, 2018, in Buffalo, New York. “He was undoubtedly the major influence in bringing [photodynamic therapy] into the realm of cancer therapy,” said David Kessel, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit.

Photodynamic Therapy: Road to FDA Approval in Oncology

In 1970, Dr. Dougherty left a lucrative job with the DuPont chemical company to join Roswell Park’s Department of Experimental Biology as a research associate. Here, he developed photodynamic therapy, a cancer treatment that combines laser light with a nontoxic, light-sensitive drug. The process kills cancer cells directly and also shuts down blood vessels in the margin around the tumor, reducing the chance that cancer cells left behind will be able to grow. Studies indicate that it also stimulates the immune system to track down and kill cancer cells throughout the body. 

Although photodynamic therapy was first discovered more than a century ago in Germany, until Dr. Dougherty’s breakthrough, researchers had failed to find ways of using light-sensitive compounds to treat disease. Dr. Dougherty successfully treated cancer with photodynamic therapy in preclinical models for the first time in 1975. Three years later, he conducted the first controlled clinical study in humans. 

In 1994, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved photodynamic therapy with the photosensitizer Photofrin (porfimer sodium) for the palliative treatment of advanced esophageal cancer. Today, it is also FDA-approved in the treatment of specific types of lung cancer and Barrett’s esophagus. Roswell Park now offers photodynamic therapy using next-generation photosensitizers and provides off-label treatment of gynecologic malignancies, head and neck cancer and dysplasia, as well as certain skin cancers.

The Oncologic Foundation of Buffalo

After selling his company, Photofrin Medical Inc, to Johnson & Johnson in 1984, Dr. Dougherty used the proceeds to establish The Oncologic Foundation of Buffalo, which initially funded photodynamic therapy research at Roswell Park. “Tom’s foundation gave me my first grant, which allowed me to begin to investigate the role of photodynamic therapy in antitumor immunity,” recalled Sandra Gollnick, PhD, now Director of Roswell Park’s Photodynamic Therapy Center. “He was a great man, a visionary, and a good friend.”

The foundation later expanded its mission to support initiatives at Canisius College, the American Brain Tumor Association, and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute. It also funded a program that taught University at Buffalo medical students “how to deal honestly and compassionately with terminally ill patients,” in Dr. Dougherty’s own words.

‘One of the Good Guys’

A graduate of Canisius College, Dr. Dougherty earned his PhD in chemistry from The Ohio State University. He was the recipient of numerous accolades and awards for his work, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society for Photobiology. He was the author or coauthor of more than 200 publications and held more than 50 patents.

Nancy Oleinick, PhD, Professor Emerita of Radiation Oncology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, remembered Dr. Dougherty as “a superb scientist, a gentleman, a visionary, and a cheerleader for [photodynamic therapy].” Added Dr. Kessel: “Tom certainly left the world a much better place for his being part of it. He was one of the ‘good guys’ of whom there can never be enough.” ■


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