Frying cancer cells

Biomedical engineers at Virginia Tech and the University of California at Berkeleyhave developed a method of destroying cancer cells using electric pulses.

The process, called irreversible electroporation (IRE), allows tumour cells to be removed without the side-effects of current treatments, such as damaging healthy tissue or leaving malignant cells.

Electroporation is a process that can increase the level of permeability of a cell. It can create either a reversible opening in a cell or an irreversible opening, and it is at the irreversible stage that the cell dies. This is the concept that the engineers used to target cancer cells.

IRE was developed by bioengineering professor Boris Rubinsky at Berkeley and engineer Rafael V Davalos at Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Science (SBES).

‘IRE removes tumours by irreversibly opening tumour cells through a series of short, intense electric pulses from small electrodes placed in or around the body,’ said Davalos.

‘This application creates permanent openings in the pores in the cells of the undesirable tissue. The openings eventually lead to the death of the cells without the use of potentially harmful chemotherapeutic drugs.’

The researchers successfully removed tissue using IRE pulses in the livers of male Sprague-Dawley rats. According to Davalos, no drugs were used, the malignant cells were destroyed, and the rat’s body structure was unharmed.

IRE also allowed the engineers to adjust the electrical current to kill the target cells without damaging healthy tissue or blood vessels surrounding them.

‘IRE shows remarkable promise as a minimally invasive, inexpensive surgical technique to treat cancer. It has the advantages that it is easy to apply, is not affected by local blood flow, and can be monitored and controlled using electrical impedance tomography,’ said Davalos.