Optune noninvasive wearable device battles aggressive brain tumors

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As a particularly aggressive brain tumor, it almost goes without saying that glioblastomas are scary things. Fortunately, patients are benefiting from a new technology that has only been available to them relatively recently.

Called the Optune, it’s a wearable device that uses electrodes to send an AC electric field through the brain to attack tumor cells. Depending on the patient, the technology slows the growth of tumors, stops them growing further, or even shrinks them. Unlike chemotherapy, it doesn’t cause collateral damage in other parts of the body, either.

“Optune generates what are called tumor-treating fields,” Dr. Eilon Kirson, manufacturer Novocure’s chief science officer, told Digital Trends. “These are electric fields at an intermediate frequency range, which can be applied to the human body without interfering with neural activity or cardiac activity, and which don’t generate any significant heat. It’s at a frequency where the fields penetrate the body, enter cancer cells, and then interfere with the highly choreographed process of the rapid cell division of these cells.”

Requiring patients to shave their heads and attach electrodes which connect by wire to a portable power generator, Optune isn’t exactly a wearable device you’d fail to notice someone using. However, as Kirson pointed out, it still allows wearers to continue with their daily lives.

“Patients can sleep with it on and walk around with it, as well as doing almost any activities they want to do,” he said. “We have patients who go hiking or skiing; whatever they can do within the limitations of their disease they can do while wearing it.”

Optune isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be, a miracle solution. In a recent clinical trial, 43 percent of patients out of 695 were still alive after beginning treatment. That compares to 30 percent undergoing standard treatments. At the four year mark, Optune users had a 17 percent survival rate, compared to 10 percent for those who didn’t use it.

Still, when you’re dealing with a cancer as vicious glioblastomas, any improvement in patient outcome is likely to be welcome news.