Surgeons at University Hospitals in Iowa City are the first in the state to use what’s called photodynamic therapy to treat patients with tumors of the esophagus — the tube that runs between the mouth and stomach.

The U-of-I’s Doctor Mark Iannettoni says he uses a special non-thermal or “cool” laser which generates no heat. Dr. Iannettoni says “It’s a red light, similar to a laser pointer, which is taken up by the medication that we give and this medication is activated by the red light and it lets off a toxic substance to the cells and it destroys the cells for about two to three millimeters.” He says this type of cancer strikes 15-to-20-thousand people in the U.S. every year, perhaps 150 a year in Iowa, but those numbers are quickly going up.

Iannettoni says “Esophageal cancer is one of the few cancers that’s rapidly rising throughout the country. It’s becoming one of the most deadly diseases that we deal with in surgery by the numbers, meaning, we don’t have a lot of opportunity to cure this disease unless we catch it early.”

How do people know if they’re at risk for this disease? He says uncontrolled heartburn is a dangerous symptom that’s not to be ignored. He says “These patients almost all, uniformly, have a history of heartburn at some time in their life that either is continuing to get worse or was very severe and then all of the sudden got better and that’s because the esophagus gets burned so badly and is replaced with abnormal tissue at the bottom of it that’s trying to protect it.”

Iannettoni came to the U-of-I in 2004 from the University of Michigan. He’s performed the new type of laser surgery on only three patients in Iowa in recent weeks, but used it on about a hundred in Michigan.