A concept that seems almost purely science fiction may actually be an effective therapy for combating cancer. A five-year clinical trial by Novocure Ltd. provided researchers with evidence that an electric skull cap designed to zap cancer cells growing in the brains of its wearers might actually work.
The cap, called Optune, is essentially a portable power supply that works by sending an alternating range of frequencies to the brains of cancer patients. The frequencies produced by the device are known as tumor treatment fields (TTFields), and they work by disrupting the mutated cell division process that enables cancer cells to grow. More specifically, the electric charges prevent chromosomes (the genetic information needed for cellular development) from lining up before cellular division, making the disruption fatal to cells. Patients are expected to wear the cap for at least 18 hours every day, while also taking a standard chemotherapy drug known as temozolomide. Other than a slight warming sensation, the caps have not demonstrated any side effects or interruptions to patient’s day-to-day activities.
It’s important to note that this treatment is only viable with glioblastomas, which are tumors of the brain or spine. The treatment only works in these parts of the body because most cells in the brain are not dividing. That means the electric disruption from the Optune cap would only be affecting cells that are dividing — meaning cancer cells.
According to the data collected from a five-year, phase III clinical trial held from July 2009 to November 2014, the survival rate of glioblastoma patients improved from 5 percent to 13 percent—more than double the original survival rate without the Optune cap.
The research trial involved 695 newly diagnosed patients with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer. While the medical community was excited to learn the news, the unconventional new therapy comes at a price of around $700 a day. The good news is, many U.S. insurers are covering the FDA approved caps. The company that funded the research, Novocure, is also looking into a similar form of therapy with aggressive pancreatic cancer.
While it doesn’t work in as short as eleven days, or solves problems with just a pill, the Optune cap is an extraordinary piece of technology and yet another reminder that we’re already living in the future.