A 'sci-fi' cancer therapy fights brain tumors, study finds

Joyce Endresen wears an Optune therapy device for brain cancer as she speaks on a phone at work in Aurora Ill. She was diagnosed in December 2014 with Glioblastoma. She had two surgeries

A 'sci-fi' cancer therapy fights brain tumors, study finds

A cap-like device that generates electric field appears to extend the life of patients with deadly brain tumor. But because cancer cells make up the majority of the cells dividing in the brains of adult cancer patients, the treatment is more harmful to tumors than the brain. It is also ultra-expensive, at $21,000 a month. Similarly, the five-year survival rate shot up from 5% to 13% for patients treated with the drug combo compared to those treated with temozolomide alone.

Patients cover their shaved scalp with strips of electrodes connected by wires to a small generator in a bag.

The introduction of this device is definitely welcome, as the current standard of care for treatment of glioblastomas often includes a lengthy combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, and only offers a roughly 27 percent chance of survival two years after diagnosis.

It supposedly works by creating low intensity, alternating electric fields that disrupt cell division - confusing the way chromosomes line up - which makes the cells die. "When I started treating patients with GBM 20 years ago, the majority of patients died within less than one year and long-term survival was almost absent", he said. The research indicated a two-year survival rate. Dr. Roger Stupp, a researcher at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago, noted that this new cancer therapy may seem "out of the box" and do not trust its successful results.

The US Food and Drug Administration has approved these caps for use in clinical trials while doctors continue testing their effect, but they're far from standard treatment.

"You can not argue with them - they're great results", chuckles Brigham and Women's Hospital chief of neurosurgery, Dr. Antonio Chiocca, noting also that the results are not likely a result of some kind of placebo effect. Both doctors and patients knew whom was receiving the caps in addition to chemotherapy; usually, control groups are given a sham treatment and kept hidden to eliminate any kind of placebo effect.

A second study, in newly diagnosed patients, was stopped in 2014 after about half of the 695 participants had been tracked for at least 18 months, because those using the device were living several months longer on average than the rest. In the United States, some health insurance companies cover it, whilst others do not. Pilot tests are also underway for other cancers, such as pancreatic tumors.

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