Used in the treatment of a skin condition called actinic keratosis, aminolevulinic acid is a medicine that patients apply onto the skin. Once applied to the affected area of skin, the medication then can change into another molecule that can kill diseased cells. This process requires light to be effective, so the patient has to undergo light treatment as well to cure the condition.
Actinic keratosis is a type of skin blemish, where bumpy areas that may also develop crusts are present on skin. These bumps can change into cancerous lesions over time, so a patient may wish to have them removed before this occurs. This process may require a visit to a doctor, who can apply aminolevulinic acid as a first step in the blemish removal.
Each bump of actinic keratosis only affects a small collection of cells relative to the rest of the skin, so the medication need only be applied to the affected area. Basically, the aminolevulinic acid treatment kills off the diseased cells so that the area of skin becomes healthy again and less at risk of skin cancer. Typically, a doctor applies the preparation of aminolevulinic acid which stays on the skin for at least 12 hours.
After the 12 hours has elapsed, the aminolevulinic acid has turned into another substance called protoporphyrin IX. This chemical breaks down when exposed to light, which is the next step in the treatment process. The patient undergoes light treatment on the affected skin, which allows the protoporphyrin IX to release oxygen atoms into the skin. Breakdown of protoporphyrin IX in the right way requires specific light wavelengths, which the light machine can deliver.
These free oxygen atoms are lethal to the cells, and kill them off. This lethal effect only occurs where the preparation was applied, and where the light was shone on the skin. A patient may see benefits after several weeks, may need to undergo another treatment with the same materials for the condition to completely resolve.
Some patients who get this treatment experience temporary side effects on the treated skin, such as soreness, redness or scaly skin. Pus can also develop and blistering and hives can occur, but all of these effects normally resolve themselves over time. During the treatment time itself, the presence of aminolevulinic acid can increase skin sensitivity to sunlight. Patients may suffer sunburn on the area, which cannot be prevented by wearing sunscreen, but which requires avoidance of sun or using clothing to cover the area.