A cap-like device that produces electric fields to fight cancer was found to improve the length of survival of brain tumor patients.

Tumor Treating Field

In a large study involving patients with newly diagnosed glioblastoma (GBM), investigators found that more than twice the number of patients who were given the therapy known as tumor treating fields survived five years after getting it along with chemotherapy compared with those who only had chemo.

Only 5 percent of the patients who received only chemotherapy were alive after five years while the proportion was 13 percent in those who received both the electric field treatment and chemotherapy.

How It Works

The therapy involves use of the device Optune, which is sold in Switzerland, Japan, Germany, and the United States for adults diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme. It is used with chemotherapy following surgery and radiation to prevent the tumors from recurring, which commonly occurs.

Patients use Optune at least 18 hours daily and cover their scalps with strips of electrodes connected to a small generator that is kept in a bag. The device only gives a feel of mild heat and not that of electric current or radiation.

Optune supposedly works for patients with brain tumor by producing low-intensity and alternating electric fields that can disrupt cell division, causing cancer cells to die. Because cancer cells divide often and the normal cells present in the brain of adults do not, the device theoretically only harms the disease and not necessarily the patient.

"Tumor Treating Fields, or TTFields, are low intensity, alternating electric fields that disrupt cell division through physical interactions with key molecules during mitosis in solid tumor cancers," Novocure explained.

Many doctors, however, are skeptical of this treatment. Brain tumor expert Dr. Roger Stupp, of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who led the study sponsored by Optune's maker Novocure, described the therapy as "out of the box" when it comes to treating cancer, and many doctors do not understand it nor think that this can help patients.


Earlier studies were not impressive but nonetheless paved way to approval from health regulators. One study of the device did not improve survival albeit it caused fewer symptoms compared with chemo for individuals whose tumors recurred or worsened after receiving standard treatments.

A study involving newly diagnosed patients was stopped in 2014 after 18 months of tracking participants because those who used the device were found to live several months longer on average. Some doctors, however, raised concern since the patients knew what they were getting.

The results of the new study are better. Investigators found median survival of 21 months for patients given the device plus chemo while those who had chemo alone had survival of 16 months.

At two years, 43 percent of those on Optune and chemo were still alive compared with 31 percent of those who had chemo alone. At three years, it was 26 percent versus 16 percent.

Among the side effects include weakness, skin irritation, fatigue, and blood-count problems.

The therapy comes at price of $21,000 per month.

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