Electric Fields Carrying Chemo Could Destroy Intractable Tumors

There’s no “good” cancer, but some are certainly worse than others when it comes to prognosis. Pancreatic cancer, for example, has a dismal survival rate. It’s inoperable in many cases, and in general it’s hard to deliver chemo to the tumor because its internal pressure keeps drugs at bay.

Researchers have been devising strategies to concentrate chemo in the most recalcitrant tumors, from injecting drugs directly into tumors themselves to directing chemo-coated magnetic particles to the site. The latest takes some of these ideas a step further while using existing drugs, a time-saving step. It comes in the form of a device that stores chemo and produces electric fields that carry the drugs directly into the tumor. Because many existing drugs are polar molecules, they are carried along with the electric current.

pancreatic cancer cells
Pancreatic cancer cells, seen here through a powerful microscope, are targeted by the new treatment.

Inventors Joseph DeSimone, a professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and his team have tested their device on mice and dogs, and the approach shows promise. Here’s Robert F. Service, reporting for Science:

The team got several promising results. In one experiment, the researchers started with mice that had been implanted with human pancreatic cancer tumors. One group of mice was then implanted with the electrode setup and administered an anticancer drug called gemcitabine twice a week for 7 weeks. Control animals received either saline through the same electrode setup or intravenous (IV) doses of saline or gemcitabine. The researchers report online today in Science Translational Medicine that the animals in the experimental group had far higher gemcitabine concentrations in their tumors compared with mice that received the IV drug. That caused the tumors to shrink dramatically in the experimental animals, whereas tumors in mice that received IV gemcitabine or saline continued to grow.

Another advantage of the approach is that it limits the distribution of chemo within the body. Though the drugs are highly toxic to cancer cells, they also are taxing to healthy cells, making treatment regimens grueling affairs.

DeSimone and his team have yet to move the device into clinical trials involving humans, an often unsuccessful transition for many would-be cancer treatments. Still, the fact that the device relies on delivering known, existing drugs more directly to a tumor site should reduce some uncertainty.