This might soon be possible, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A technology based on radar research intended to detect space missiles for the "Strategic Defense Initiative" has been adapted for breast cancer treatment. It is currently under clinical testing and is showing early successes. Since October 2002, 64 women have received the treatment. By comparison with a control group of other patients, these women "had a 43 percent reduction in the incidence rate of cancer cells found close to the surgical margins."
Since October 2002, 90 women with early-stage breast cancer have enrolled in the study, in which microwave energy focused externally on the breast is delivered to tumors prior to lumpectomy. The goal is to use focused heat to kill tumor cells and reduce additional surgery.
Treating cancer with heat is not a new idea, but "researchers were having trouble using it to treat tumors deep within the body," said Alan Fenn, a senior staff member at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and inventor of the technique. Further, it's difficult to deliver the heat only to cancer cells and not overheat normal tissue.
Below is a diagram showing how the technique works.
|To kill a cancerous tumor, microwave energy is focused on the tumor while simultaneously nullifying any energy that would overheat surrounding health tissue (Credit: MIT).
Here are the current results, based on the 64 women who received the treatment.
Patients in the thermotherapy group of the current study receive a minimally invasive heat treatment prior to surgery and radiation therapy, while patients in the control group receive surgery alone prior to radiation therapy. Preliminary results indicate that in the thermotherapy group, 5 of 30 (16.7%) patients had tumor cells close to the surgical margins, whereas in the group receiving surgery alone, 10 of 34 (29.4%) patients had tumor cells close to the margin.
Previous results were published on January 12, 2004, by the Annals of Surgical Oncology. You can read the abstract of this paper, "Focused Microwave Phased Array Thermotherapy for Ablation of Early-Stage Breast Cancer: Results of Thermal Dose Escalation."
And now, what's next? The MIT granted an exclusive license for this technology to a company named Celsion Corporation. Here is what Celsion says about this technology which it calls "Adaptive Phased Array (APA) Heat Treatment."
Celsionís APA technology illustrates how military inventions can be adapted into an instrument of healing. Much like destroying an enemy missile, microwave energy is focused on a cancerous tumor, simultaneously nullifying any energy that would burn the patient's skin or overheat surrounding tissue.
Sources: Elizabeth Thomson, MIT News Office, April 15, 2004; and various websites