from the July 2010 issue

Electric Helmet Slows Brain Tumors Without Chemo Side Effects

Doctors treating brain cancer have a limited toolkit. They can cut tumors out with a knife, burn them with radiation or try to poison them with drugs.

NovoCure Ltd., a closely held Israeli company, has added a fourth option for hard-to-treat tumors. It's an array of electrodes resembling a tight-fitting helmet that bathes the cancer in a faint electric field, scrambling the inner workings of the rampaging cells and preventing them from multiplying.

The helmet, powered by a 6-pound battery pack, is designed to zap deadly glioblastomas, the malignancy that killed U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy in August 2009. In a study reported today, it helped patients with recurrent tumors live 7.8 months, compared with a median 6.1 months for patients given the best available chemotherapies or Roche AG's Avastin.

The technology is so different from other treatments, it was difficult to convince patients and doctors to try it, said Philip Gutin, primary investigator for the study. "This new data actually shows that it's effective," said Gutin, the chair of neurosurgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "People will ask for this now." The electric fields resonate at a frequency designed to do no harm to healthy brain tissue. In the test, the only side effect was mild scalp irritation, Gutin said. "If it continues to look as good as it does, it will be used in lots of different treatments. There's no downside to it." The study, reported at the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, followed 237 very sick patients whose cancers had returned after prior treatment and whose tumors, on average, were 4 centimeters (1.57 inches) in diameter. Topping Chemotherapy The study was designed to show that patients using the helmet fared significantly better than those taking chemotherapy and Avastin. On this basis, it was a failure. That's because more than 50 patients either died or dropped out before they completed the first round of treatment, said Eilon Kirson, head of NovoCure's research and development. When those patients are excluded from both arms of the analysis, the helmet performed better than other treatments, Kirson said. Under either analysis, the trial found the helmet to be at least as good as other approaches, but without the vomiting, fatigue and infections associated with chemotherapy. While shooting electricity through the brain conjures images of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," or the involuntary electroshock therapy in Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Kirson emphasized that NovoCure's technology is new. The helmet is the first cancer therapy to use alternating polarities in electric fields as a way to disrupt the cell division process known as mitosis.

Reprinted from the Israel High-Tech & Investment Report July 2010

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