For patients diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that strikes about 3 in 100,000 patients in North America each year, the prognosis is bleak. Only five per cent of patients live past five years, and no study in the last decade has found a way to improve survival rates.
Earlier this year, Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie died after a high-profile battle with glioblastoma, and Republican U.S. Senator John McCain continues to fight the disease.
But an unusual cap-like device studded with electrodes is offering a rare glimmer of hope for patients and researchers.
The device, marketed as Optune, was the focus of a study released Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study included 695 patients in Canada and the U.S. undergoing chemotherapy.
The device, which requires patients to shave their scalps, emits a low-intensity electromagnetic field to stop or slow cancer cells from dividing. Patients involved in the study wore the cap for about 18 hours per day
Researchers found that regular use of the device bought patients an additional four months to live. It also doubled the number of patients alive after five years, from five per cent to 13 per cent.
That number may seem small, but even small steps forward are considered significant in the daunting fight against glioblastoma. The last medical advance was in 2005, when researchers found that the chemotherapy temozolimide boosted survival by about two months.
“What we have here is a new way of treating cancer altogether,” said Dr. Roger Stupp the lead researcher and an internationally recognized neuro-oncologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“So it is not chemotherapy, it’s not radiation, it is not surgery. It is something novel, new and we can easily combine it with other treatments . And in glioblastoma, we have shown beyond a doubt that it improves survival.”
Dr. Garth Nicholas, an Ottawa-based oncologist, is cautiously optimistic about the findings.
"It is not a cure or as dramatic breakthrough that we would like, but it certainly can improve things for selected patients,” Dr. Nicholas told CTV News.
Denis Raymond, a former teacher from Ottawa involved in the study, has survived 4.5 years since his diagnosis – a success story he credits to the device.
“For a while I was living day to day … and then eventually it went week to week, eventually it went to month to month. For the first time in a long time, I am looking year to year,” Raymond said. “It allowed me to regain control over my life.”
But the device is costly – about $21,000 per month – and, despite being tested on some Canadians, it is not yet available in Canada. The manufacturer, Novocure, told CTV News it has not yet applied for regulatory approval in Canada.
In the meantime, the device is being marketed in the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Israel and Japan.
Raymond said he found wearing the device to be fairly non-invasive. He wore the device for 2.5 years, and the side effects included minor memory loss and scalp irritation.
Raymond has since begun graduate school studies and has been treatment-free for two years. He considers his time using the device a major turning point in his cancer treatment.
“I feel extremely, extremely lucky to have been able to access the clinical trial when I did, because I do feel like it benefitted me quite a bit,” he said.
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip