Can This Innovative, High-Tech Cap be the Future of Cancer Treatment?

Think of it as a mashup between a standard swimming cap and the Cerebro device Professor Xavier uses in the X-Men series. Whatever you want to call it, you should at least be aware that it exists.

Research has strongly suggested that a cap-like device which uses electric fields to fight cancer cells has improved survival for people with critical  brain tumors.

The future is now, huh?!

The therapy is called Tumor Treating Fields, while the innovative new device itself is Optune, made by British pharma company Novocure. Currently available in the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, and Japan – it is meant to treat a particularly aggressive type of cancer called glioblastoma multiforme, and is used in conjunction with chemotherapy to try to prevent tumors from growing.

And how does it work?

Patients cover their scalps with electrode strips connected by wires to a small, portable generator; for at least 18 hours a day. Patients who have used it reported only minor heat from the cap, and are free to wear another hat or head wrap (or anything, really) to hide the device.

So patients can carry on with treatment without a major obstruction into their day-to-day lives.

Optune works by creating low intensity, alternating electric fields that disrupt cell division, causing cancer cells to die. And in the study, side effects were minimal: blood-count issues, weakness and fatigue, and skin irritation.

Click here for a picture of Joyce Endresen, a patient who is wearing the device while at work.

In the latest research trial, median survival was 21 months for those on Optune and chemotherapy, per the treatment versus 16 months for those only on the chemo. Survival rates were 43 percent versus 31 percent at two years; 26 percent versus 16 percent at three years, and 13 percent versus 5 percent at five years. In other words – significant results!

The catch?

The price of the treatment is about $21,000 a month – or roughly $700 a day, per treatment instructions. And while most US insurance companies cover it, Medicare doesn’t. The high price tag is merited, considering the the intricate medical parts and nearly two decades of research and testing that has brought us to this point.

And some are skeptical of the cost-value proportion.

“It’s out of the box” in terms of how cancer is usually treated, and many doctors don’t understand it or think it can help, according to brain tumor expert Dr. Roger Stupp, in an Associated Press article he was quoted in.

And Dr. George Demetri of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute called the results modest, because most patients still die within five years.

And while this latest study boasted statistically significant results, that wasn’t always the case.

In a 2011 study, the device didn’t improve survival – it only reduced the level of symptoms versus just chemotherapy. And a second study in 2014 had to be halted after subject complications. And some doctors remained skeptical because there was no sham treatment to compare Optune to, considering the unique circumstances of the device itself i.e. people didn’t want to shave their heads and wear a hot cap for weeks on the risk that it wasn’t the real deal.

But still, the recent findings instill people with hope that new and innovative technologies can make a dent in fighting cancer.

Optune is currently being tested for pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancers, with the electrode strips being worn on the belly or chest. So yesterday’s “modest findings” can -and will – be tomorrow’s “breakthrough” in the fight against cancer.

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