During the Cold War, scientists developed radar anti-jamming technology to detect missiles from space-borne satellites. But that era is over, and those scientists have now found a way to use the same focused microwave technology to fight an even deadlier foe—breast cancer.
While cancer-detection techniques are fairly well developed, treatments like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation have significant limitations and side effects. More importantly, they don't completely eliminate all of the cancer cells. Some researchers have looked to using heat to kill these cells, but this is difficult to do without burning healthy tissue.
That's why Alan J. Fenn, senior staff member in the Air Defense Technology Division at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, decided to try focused microwaves. Healthy breast tissue contains 20% to 60% water, but breast cancer cells are 80% water. Focused microwave therapy heats these cells to 115°F and kills them without harming any surrounding tissue. So far, the results are positive.
"This is an out-patient procedure," Fenn explains. "Patients treated in the Phase I trial went home with only one or two tiny band aids."
During the procedure, patients lie prone on a treatment table similar to that used in stereotactic breast-needle biopsies (see the figure). Two needle probes sense and measure the procedure's parameters. Focused micro-waves then heat the tumor to 115°F. The 10 patients in the treatment's Phase I FDA study received a single 20- to 40-minute dosage.
Fenn says that between one and three weeks after a single limited-dose heat-alone treatment, "advanced breast tumors typically had been reduced in size or destroyed by about 50% in eight of the 10 patients." Also, side effects were minimal. The only significant ailment noted during the trial was a slight fever occurring a few days after treatment.
This procedure has the potential to reduce or eliminate the need for conventional radiation treatment. Fenn warns, however, that patients would still need chemotherapy and conventional radiation if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Phase II trials involving 130 patients are slated to begin soon at several hospitals around the U.S. and in England. Celsion Corp. of Columbia, Md., has the exclusive license from the university to develop the clinical treatment system.
"With focused microwave thermotherapy, we want to demonstrate a significantly higher rate of conversion from mastectomy to breast conservation therapy as well as a more complete destruction of the cancer cells in the breast," Fenn concludes.
For more information about the treatment, visit MIT on the Web at www.mit.edu.