Device uses electricity to disrupt cells, improve brain cancer survival

A wearable device that uses electricity to disrupt cancer cells has improved survival for people with brain cancer for the first time in more than a decade.

Joyce Endresen often gets asked what is on her head by kids. She said she tells them it's a superhero cap.

The villain in this case - a very aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma that Endresen was diagnosed with in December 2014.

"It was a terrible shocking time. For the first few months, my husband and I were devastated. Just crying a lot," she said.

After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, doctors tried a new therapy involving a device called Optune.

Patients cover their shaved scalp with strips of electrodes connected by wires to a small generator kept in a bag. It creates a low intensity electric field that disrupts cell production, causing them to die.

"When we were starting it, it was maybe science fiction, as with everything new you start. I think it shows how cancer therapy has evolved," said Dr. Roger Stupp with Northwestern University.

The results, which were just released at a cancer conference, show that while therapy is not a cure, it extends patients' lives.

"So median survival has increased from 16 months to 21 months. More importantly so that we have two-year survival, three-year, four-year and five-year survival increase," Stupp said.

He hopes the findings help convince other doctors who have been skeptical.

Endresen said her husband Hal helps change the electrodes every three to four days.

"I'm not ashamed to have them on and I don't care if anybody knows that I have cancer. I think it's good to show people that you can do this and not be worried about what other people think," she said.

So far, Endreson's MRIs, which are done every two months, haven't revealed any new tumors. Fatigue is her main side effect, but she's been able to work and resume her love of travel.

"Instead of just for vacation, we're going to celebrate my life and me doing so well and being able to travel and work and lead a normal life," she said.

Endresen's insurance covers most of the cost of the device. Pilot tests are now also underway for other cancers, including pancreatic and ovarian.
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