This is spinal tap

An implantable pump that delivers medication directly into spinal fluid could greatly improve the pain relief, overall quality of life and survival rate for cancer patients.

An implantable pump that delivers pain medication in a slow-release fashion directly into the spinal fluid could greatly improve the pain relief, overall quality of life and survival for cancer patients living in pain.

These are the findings of an international study completed at Johns Hopkins University Medical Institutions, the Medical College of Virginia and 25 other medical centres.

Researchers studied more than 200 people with a variety of cancers – including lung, breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers – whose pain could not be controlled by morphine or other opiate drugs.

Patients were randomly assigned to either receive an implantable pump delivering medications directly into the spinal fluid or to continue taking pain medicine by mouth.

Results of the study, which were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Orlando, Florida, revealed that at the end of the six-month study, 54 percent of the pump patients were living, against 37 percent of those on medical management.

In addition, patients on the pump had less pain and fewer side effects from pain drugs, including significantly less fatigue, less constipation or nausea, and improved mental status.

The pump used for the study, about the size and shape of a hockey puck, contains a prescribed amount of drug and is surgically inserted in the abdomen. A small tube reaches from the pump around the waist to deliver medication directly into the spinal fluid.

Physicians can tailor the dose for each patient, deciding when and how much medication to release, depending on pain levels. Doctors refill the pump by injecting medication through the abdomen into a tiny opening on the front of the device.

‘This challenges our thinking about how to treat cancer pain,’ said Peter S. Staats, M.D., director of the Division of Pain Medicine at Johns Hopkins and a co-principal investigator for the study. ‘Normally we give the patients pain medication, and if it doesn’t work we’ll resort to something else as a last-ditch effort.

‘This suggests that earlier intervention with an approach that minimises systemic drugs has a significant benefit in a variety of domains. It presents a whole new paradigm in patient care.’