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

April 2, 2017 by Marilynn Marchione
In this March 29, 2017 photo, 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 to remove the tumor as well as radiation and chemotherapy, but is now trying the new therapy that requires her to wear the electrodes on her head as much as possible. They create low intensity electric fields that disrupt cell reproduction, which makes the cells die. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

It sounds like science fiction, but a cap-like device that makes electric fields to fight cancer improved survival for the first time in more than a decade for people with deadly brain tumors, 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—$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 percent versus 5 percent.

"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 University 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.

ABOUT THE TREATMENT

The device, called Optune, is made by Novocure, based in Jersey, an island near England. It's sold in the U.S., 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.

WHAT STUDIES SHOW

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 U.S. 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.

The FDA expanded approval but some doctors were leery because the device wasn't compared with a sham treatment—everyone knew who was getting what. Study leaders say a sham was impractical, because patients feel heat when they get the real thing, and many would refuse to shave their heads every few days and use an inconvenient device for years if the treatment might be fake.

Some doctors said they would withhold judgment until there were long-term results on the whole group.

THE NEW RESULTS

Now they're in: Median survival was 21 months for those given Optune plus chemo versus 16 months for those on chemo alone. Survival rates were 43 percent versus 31 percent at two years; 26 percent versus 16 percent at three years, and 13 percent versus 5 percent at five years.

Side effects were minimal but included blood-count problems, weakness, fatigue and skin irritation from the electrodes.

"The device is now impossible to ignore ... it absolutely is an advance," said Dr. Andrew Lassman, brain tumor chief at the Columbia University Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian Hospital. He consults for Novocure, as do some doctors running the study.

The latest National Comprehensive Cancer Center guidelines include Optune as an appropriate treatment for brain tumors. It's also is being tested for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers; electrodes are worn on the belly or chest for those.

THE PRICE

A big issue is cost—roughly $700 a day. Most U.S. insurers cover it but Medicare does not and "we are paying," said Novocure's chief executive, Bill Doyle. "We've never refused a patient regardless of insurance status."

The price reflects "an extremely sophisticated medical device, made in very low quantities," with disposable parts changed several times a week and a support person for each patient, he said. Plus 17 years of lab, animal and human testing.

That cost? "The round number is half a billion dollars," Doyle said.

ONE PATIENT'S EXPERIENCE

Joyce Endresen's insurance covers all but about $1,000 a year for her device. "It's a great plan, and that's why I still work," said Endresen, 52, employed by a direct mail company in suburban Chicago.

She has scans every two months to check for cancer and "they've all been good," she said. "We celebrated two years of no tumor in December and went to South Africa."

Doctors say many patients won't try the device because of the trouble involved or because they don't want a visible reminder of their cancer. Not Endresen.

"I wear it and wear it proudly," she said. "It's an incredible machine and I'm fine not having hair."

Explore further: Optune device approved for newly diagnosed brain cancer

More information: Info on the device:

www.novocure.com/

www.youtube.com/watch?v=td5Ld3 … RAI&feature=youtu.be

www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d13o1 … r7s&feature=youtu.be

www.youtube.com/watch?v=voVa7P … xUg&feature=youtu.be

Treatment options for brain cancer: 1.usa.gov/ZqXBlz

American Cancer Society info: bit.ly/UJMhZG

Related Stories

Optune device approved for newly diagnosed brain cancer

October 6, 2015
(HealthDay)—The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday expanded its approval for the Optune device to include newly diagnosed glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain cancer.

Patient receives first prescription for FDA-approved brain tumor treatment

December 5, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- The University of Illinois Hospital is the first center in North America to prescribe a new FDA-approved treatment for patients with the most common and aggressive type of brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme, ...

Gene therapy to fight a blood cancer succeeds in major study

February 28, 2017
An experimental gene therapy that turns a patient's own blood cells into cancer killers worked in a major study, with more than one-third of very sick lymphoma patients showing no sign of disease six months after a single ...

Wearable device slows deadly brain tumors, clinical trial finds

April 9, 2015
A wearable device that emits low-level electrical fields can slow the progression of glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer, and extend patients' lifespans, a major clinical trial at the University of Virginia School ...

Cells dripped into the brain help man fight a deadly cancer

December 28, 2016
A man with deadly brain cancer that had spread to his spine saw his tumors shrink and, for a time, completely vanish after a novel treatment to help his immune system attack his disease—another first in this promising field.

Recommended for you

New findings explain how UV rays trigger skin cancer

October 18, 2017
Melanoma, a cancer of skin pigment cells called melanocytes, will strike an estimated 87,110 people in the U.S. in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A fraction of those melanomas come from ...

Drug yields high response rates for lung cancer patients with harsh mutation

October 18, 2017
A targeted therapy resurrected by the Moon Shots Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has produced unprecedented response rates among patients with metastatic non-small cell lung cancer that carries ...

Possible new immune therapy target in lung cancer

October 18, 2017
A study from Bern University Hospital in collaboration with the University of Bern shows that so-called perivascular-like cells from lung tumors behave abnormally. They not only inadequately support vascular structures, but ...

Many pelvic tumors in women may have common origin—fallopian tubes

October 17, 2017
Most—and possibly all—ovarian cancers start, not in ovaries, but instead in the fallopian tubes attached to them.

Researchers find novel mechanism of resistance to anti-cancer drugs

October 17, 2017
The targeted anti-cancer therapies cetuximab and panitumumab are mainstays of treatment for advanced colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. However, many patients have tumors ...

New bowel cancer drug target discovered

October 17, 2017
Researchers at the Francis Crick Institute have discovered a new drug target for bowel cancer that is specific to tumour cells and therefore less toxic than conventional therapies.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (1) Apr 03, 2017
That price is a total ripoff for what is relatively simple electronics

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.