For many cancer patients, chemotherapy has long been a messy affair. The drugs administered during this phase of treatment attack cancerous cells, surely, but also impart a fair bit of collateral damage to healthy cells. This shotgun approach causes many of the side effects associated with chemotherapy, including hair loss and lowered immunity.
Now, a team of researchers believes they may have found a way to administer chemotherapy drugs directly to a tumor and avoid the spillover effects. In the new treatment, electrodes planted within the body use low-voltage electrical fields to transport polarized drugs through a tumor’s wall.
"A big challenge with many drugs is getting them where they need to go," Lissett Bickford, a biomedical engineer at Virginia Tech and a coauthor of a study published this week in Science Translational Medicine said in a statement. "This technology basically forces drugs directly to and through the tumor, allowing all cancer cells in the treatment zone to get that exposure."
In experiments, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University implanted pancreatic tumors from humans in the bodies of mice. Tumors for pancreatic cancer can be particularly difficult to remove surgically because they tend to wrap around other organs, reports Science magazine. Then, they treated the tumors with a common cancer drug called gemcitabine delivered through their electrode system and also through an IV. Delivering chemo drugs through an IV into the bloodstream, and relying on the circulatory system to ensure that at least a portion of the drugs find their way to the tumor, is a standard practice in today’s cancer treatment.
So far, the treatment has only been tested in a series of experiments with mice and dogs. But the authors believe that their new tactic could have “potential paradigm shifting implications for the treatment of pancreatic, breast, and other solid tumors,” as they write in their abstract.
The researchers found that their electrode system technique boosted the amount of gemcitabine that made its way into the tumor and led to a greater decrease in the size of the tumor overall as compared with IV delivery. In another test in dogs, the team showed that using this method could increase the amount of the drug that made it into the tumor by seven times, and decrease the amount that coursed through the dog’s bloodstream by 25 times.
About 50,000 people in the U.S. will develop pancreatic cancer this year and more than 40,000 will die from it, according to the American Cancer Society. Robert Langer, a specialist in drug delivery at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Science, “The initial data look quite promising.”