A cap-like device that makes electric fields to fight cancer has improved survival for the first time in more than a decade for deadly brain tumor patients, final results of a large study suggest.
Many doctors are skeptical of the therapy, called tumor treating fields, and it’s not a cure. It’s also ultra-expensive USD 21,000 a month.
But in the study, more than twice as many patients were alive five years after getting it, plus the usual chemotherapy, than those given just the chemo 13 per cent versus 5 per cent.
“It’s out of the box” in terms of how cancer is usually treated, and many doctors don’t understand it or think it can help, said Dr. Roger Stupp, a brain tumor expert at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
He led the company-sponsored study while previously at University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland, and gave results Sunday at an American Association for Cancer Research meeting in Washington.
“You cannot argue with them they’re great results,” and unlikely to be due to a placebo effect, said one independent expert, Dr. Antonio Chiocca, neurosurgery chief at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Dr. George Demetri of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and a board member of the association hosting the conference, agreed but called the benefit modest, because most patients still die within five years. “It is such a horrible disease” that any progress is important, he added.
The device, called Optune, is made by Novocure, based in Jersey, an island near England. It’s sold in the US, Germany, Switzerland and Japan for adults with an aggressive cancer called glioblastoma multiforme, and is used with chemo after surgery and radiation to try to keep these tumors from recurring, as most do.
Patients cover their shaved scalp with strips of electrodes connected by wires to a small generator kept in a bag. They can wear a hat, go about their usual lives, and are supposed to use the device at least 18 hours a day. It’s not an electric current or radiation, and they feel only mild heat.
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. Because cancer cells divide often, and normal cells in the adult brain do not, this in theory mostly harms the disease and not the patient.
In a 2011 study, the device didn’t improve survival but caused fewer symptoms than chemo did for people whose tumors had worsened or recurred after standard treatments. The US Food and Drug Administration approved it for that situation.
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.