Scientists from the University of Cork are developing a technique which could make cancer treatments more effective and reduce or even prevent many of the negative effects associated with treatment, such as hair loss.
Electro-chemotherapy is already in use for the treatment of skin cancer and other external cancers, but the team has developed a probe which can reach tumours located deep within the patient’s body, such as in lung and bowel cancer.
How Chemotherapy works and why it causes hair loss
Conventional chemotherapy treatments use a combination of anti-cancer drugs which prevent cancerous cells from dividing and multiplying, thus stopping tumours from growing and spreading further in the body. Unfortunately, the chemotherapy drugs do not discriminate between these cancer cells and normal healthy cells, and so these also come under attack during the treatment. This is what causes the unpleasant side-effects of chemotherapy, which can include hair loss, vomiting, digestive problems and infertility.
Electro-chemotherapy uses a series of short electric pulses directed at the cancerous cells to damage their outer membrane. This enables the chemotherapy drugs to penetrate the cell much more easily and in greater quantities, and this in turn means that less of the drug is needed to be effective. Previously this treatment has been used clinically to treat cancers of the skin when other treatments have stopped working.
The new technique, which is still in an experimental phase, will enable doctors to reach deeper inside the body and use electro-chemotherapy to treat tumours located within body cavities. The probe developed by the University of Cork team, named the EndoVe, has been used successfully in trials to treat patients with inoperable bowel tumours. However, they hope to adapt it further to enable its use in the treatment of other cancers, including those in the lungs, prostate, oesophagus and pancreas.
EndoVe’s co-inventor, Dr. Soden of Cork Cancer Research Centre, explained the process by which the system works: “The device makes the tumour tissue porous, meaning the tumour absorbs chemotherapy drugs more efficiently, so less of the chemotherapy drug is used…and because the chemotherapy drugs are only absorbed in the area treated by the electrical field, it results in lower drug concentrations and potentially shorter stays in hospital. This reduces costs significantly for the health care provider.”
New treatment could be available within five years
The probe is still in the early stages of its development, and the researchers say that much more research and clinical trials will be needed before it is used in mainstream cancer treatment, but it is thought that it may become available in the UK within three to five years. As well as reducing hair loss and other side effects in cancer patients, it is also expected to speed up the treatment process and result in shorter hospital stays.