Each year in the UK 30,000 liver cancer sufferers develop small secondary tumours which are, in most cases, inoperable. Those affected have an average life expectancy of less than one year.
Now, EPSRC-funded research into microwave technology at London South Bank University (LSBU) and the University of Bath could give such patients hope.
Researchers are using heat delivered by microwaves to destroy tumours. By heating cancer cells to around 80 degrees Celsius (much higher than previous microwave treatments) a large region of necrosis – cell death – can be generated.
Yet delivering microwave-generated heat where it is needed depends on solving two main problems: The first is finding the right material for a microwave applicator, while the second is miniaturising the probe/applicator so that it can be used without major surgery.
Early on, the researchers identified ceramic oxide materials as the most promising substances from which to make applicators. Any such dielectric material (a substance that can maintain an electric field) would also have to demonstrate that it could transmit a strong electric field for its size and that it would lose as little energy as possible.
The LBSU group, led by Professor Neil Alford, has developed the right dielectric materials for the job while the Bath team, led by Professor Nigel Cronin, has come up with novel designs for applicators that exploit these new materials.
These applicators can treat a region 1cm in diameter – large enough to tackle sizeable tumours. The team aim to develop an applicator with a 6mm diameter that could be inserted through a patient’s abdominal wall and guided to the site of a tumour – smaller applicators could even be inserted under the skin.
This new treatment method could bring enormous benefits: Liver tumours were the team’s initial target and testing on animal liver has shown that their probe can destroy lesions in a matter of seconds.
The technology could also be used to treat breast cancer, throat and mouth cancer and could even be used on inoperable brain tumours.
The future looks bright as Microsulis Medical has signed agreements with Bath and LSBU to commercialise the new technology.