Doctors in India eager for a new weapon in the fight against cancer

Despite progress in the prevention and treatment of cancer in recent decades, the disease remains one of the biggest killers of all, ranking sixth in the World Health Organization’s top 10 causes of death. But Rakuten Medical’s Alluminox™ platform, an investigational* photoimmunotherapy technology that uses light to help kill targeted cells, is raising hopes for cancer treatment, particularly in head and neck cancer, the seventh most common type of cancer worldwide. Roughly a quarter of all these cases are in India, where Rakuten Medical is working hard on the development of the new treatment.  

*Rakuten Medical’s therapies based on Alluminox™ platform are investigational outside of Japan, and not approved in India for investigational or commercial use.

Mikitani’s personal quest

When Rakuten Group Chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani was scouring the world to find a therapy that could save his father from pancreatic cancer, he met Dr. Hisataka Kobayashi of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the United States. Dr. Kobayashi and his colleagues had invented photoimmunotherapy and Aspyrian Therapeutics, a biotech venture company in San Diego had obtained an exclusive license to develop and commercialize the technology.

Mikitani thought this could cure his father’s cancer and decided to support the development of the technology at Aspyrian Therapeutics. While Mikitani was unable to save his father, he was determined to follow one of his teachings as an economist, namely that an important mission of corporations is to contribute to humanity. As co-CEO, Mikitani is now working — through Rakuten Medical which was renamed from Aspyrian Therapeutics — to develop treatments for cancer patients all over the world.

Meeting high, unmet medical demand in India

To bring investigational treatments based on the Alluminox platform to India, Rakuten Medical established Rakuten Medical Private Limited (Rakuten Medical India) in Mumbai earlier this year. Head and neck cancer is very common in India, constituting 26% of all head and neck cancer worldwide*1 and 30% of all cancers in India*2.

One of the reasons for this is the widespread use of tobacco products across India. 29% of all adults (15 years and above) in India are users of tobacco*3. Another challenge is the high mortality of head and neck cancer in India due to patients presenting late with more advanced stage disease*4. Such high volumes of advanced-stage patients can present many challenges for surgeons and medical oncologists who treat head and neck cancer. Time and treatment options are limited. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are all commonly used to manage this patient population — but more options are needed.

“We are at the forefront in the development of this new type of cancer treatment.”

ABHIJIT BHATIA, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, RAKUTEN MEDICAL

Rakuten Medical personnel have been on multiple tours of the country to pave the way for the introduction of its technology. Abhijit Bhatia, chief operating officer at Rakuten Medical, is one of the staff who visited leading hospitals in India in September 2022 to better understand how head and neck cancer patients are currently treated in India and how this investigational technology may fit into doctors’ treatment plans for future patients given the technology’s new approach to treating cancer.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm from the physicians themselves because, in their words, this will certainly help patients who don’t really have an alternative,” says Bhatia.

Harnessing the power of light

Rakuten Medical’s investigational Alluminox treatment consists of drug and device components. Patients are first administered a drug that binds a dye molecule to the targeted cells over time. Non-thermal light is then applied. The light is applied directly to tumors that are close to the surface of the skin, but for deeper tumors, other devices can be used to deliver the light. There are investigational studies*5 that have shown that the illumination causes biophysical processes on the tumor cell surface, leading to the death of the tumor cells with minimal effects on the surrounding tissue.

There are early clinical studies*6 that indicate that this technology has the potential not only to kill cancer cells rapidly but also to boost immunity. Based on its unique mechanism of action, and potential to treat various cancers, Rakuten Medical hopes the therapy may one day be regarded as the fifth pillar of weapons against cancer alongside surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy. A therapy based on the Alluminox platform has been approved and is already commercialized in Japan. Rakuten Medical is working to gain approval for therapies based on Alluminox in other markets as well.

Committed to helping patients in India — with the people of India

Aside from establishing a new Rakuten Medical India office, Rakuten Medical further demonstrated its commitment to India in November 2022 when Mikitani delivered a keynote speech at the 22nd National Conference of Foundation for Head and Neck Oncology, which brought together leading cancer surgeons from across India. The company is confident that India will be instrumental in furthering the development of the Alluminox platform as a new therapy for the treatment of cancer.

Rakuten Medical’s Alluminox™ platform, a technology that uses light to help kill targeted cells, is raising hopes for cancer treatment in India.
Rakuten Medical booth at the 22nd National Conference of Foundation for Head and Neck Oncology (FHNO2022) held on November 4 in Guwahati, Assam in northeastern India.

“We are at the forefront in the development of this new type of cancer treatment,” says Bhatia. “Radiation took almost 100 years to evolve into the widely available standard of care for a wide range of cancer that we know it as today. Our hope is to cut that evolutionary timeline down to a fraction of the time so that we can reach as many patients as possible as soon as possible.”


Editor’s notes:

  1. J Ferlay, M Ervik, F Lam, et al, eds. Global Cancer Observatory: Cancer Today. International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2020. Accessed, August 23, 2022.  http://gco.iarc.fr/today
  2. Kulkarni MR. Head and Neck Cancer Burden in India. Int J Head and Neck Surg 2013;4(1):29-35
  3. WHO: https://www.who.int/india/health-topics/tobacco
  4. Chaturvedi P. Head and neck surgery. J Can Res Ther 2009;5:143
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6276043/ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25862414/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32496557/
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