Microwave energy offers new treatment option for cancer patients

July 23, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Doctors at Stanford Hospital are refining a technique to kill tumors without major surgery. For patients with certain types of cancers, the minimally invasive technique is proving life changing.

Gwen McCane is one of those patients. Golf is a passion for her and her husband Carl. But the discovery of a cancerous spot on her liver, forced Gwen to shift her focus. After surviving pancreatic cancer, the news that cancer had metastasized to her liver represented a new battle.

"At that time, it was almost like a death sentence," says Gwen.

Gwen turned to Dr. Gloria Hwang at Stanford Hospital, who recommended treatment with a device that delivers microwave heat to kill tumor tissue -- a process known as microwave ablation.

Hwang explains how the system works.

"This is her liver, and this bright spot is where some of the tumor has metastasized. In 10 minutes I can very easily encompass this tumor plus a little bit of the liver tissue around it," she said.

In the second of two procedures to kill the cancer, Hwang uses imaging from a CT scanner to place two probes into the tumor from different angles.

"I've essentially bracketed this tumor with these two needles," explains Hwang.

The system known as Certus 140 employs a gas cooling system, which allows it to deliver higher levels of heat to a wider target area without burning surrounding tissue.

Stanford's Dr. Paul Laeseke was part of the development team and is currently director of clinical affairs for NeuWave Medical, the company that manufactures the system.

"This delivers up to 140 watts of power," explains Laeseke. "You need to be able to put down a lot of power to create larger volumes of tissue kill and to treat the whole tumor."

Once the microwave heat is released, Hwang uses ultrasound imaging to gage how much of the tumor is being destroyed. Bubbles produced by the heat are visible as a milky area on the screen.

"And that cloud of gas gives me a pretty good approximation of how large the kill zone is," explains Hwang.

Over the course of about an hour, the Stanford team will confirm that the microwave heat has reached the entire tumor before removing the probes. Hwang then re-checks the images to confirm the effect.

For Gwen, the procedure is part of a wider treatment plan to fight her cancer, which also includes chemotherapy. Together the treatments are allowing her to return her favorite pastime.

"My husband and I are getting back on the golf course," says Gwen. "We love golf, and golf is our life. So, we're getting back on the course."

The research team behind the technology hopes the microwave technique can eventually be applied to other targets, including lung cancer.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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