This Electric Helmet Looks Goofy But It Zaps Deadly Brain Cancer

Illustration for article titled This Electric Helmet Looks Goofy But It Zaps Deadly Brain Cancer

Glioblastoma is one of the most aggressive and deadly forms of brain cancer. Nausea-inducing chemotherapy can prolong life by a few months, but there's another gentler though funnier-looking treatment: a cap that literally zaps the tumor away.


The FDA approved this cap, called NovoTTF in 2011, when clinical trials found that it as effective as conventional chemotherapy with fewer serious side effects. Now, the company behind NovoTTF has released data on all 457 patients who have since used the device. The median survival of 9.6 months with the device continues to be promising. Without treatment, glioblastoma usually takes its toll in three to five months.

NovoTTF works pretty much unlike any other cancer treatment out there. It uses electricity to disrupt mitosis, or the process by which one cell becomes two. Cancer, in fact, can be simplistically described as mitosis gone wild. NovoTTF's alternating electric field disturbs the electric dipole that forms when a cell divides in two. The resulting daughter cells are not viable and then die. The therapy is most effective when the cap is worn more than 18 hours a day.

Compared to the litany of side effects that come with chemotherapy, NovoTTF is much gentler. It causes mild to moderate skin rashes where electrode meets scalp. I can't help but wonder if the way we officially code side effects in medicine means we would discount other downsides, like having to shave your scalp or lugging around a large battery pack or constantly wearing this odd-looking device.

All of that, of course, falls by the wayside in a life-or-death situation. But those questions will linger and even grow as the world of medicine and wearable tech continue to converge. Rumors around Apple's iWatch, for example, include a hiring spree of medical tech experts. Medicine has in effect been making wearables for years—perhaps this new wave of interest from consumer electronics companies can inject both better engineering and better design in medical technology. [ASCO Annual Meeting]

Illustration for article titled This Electric Helmet Looks Goofy But It Zaps Deadly Brain Cancer

Images courtesy of NovoCure



So it is the brain cancer patients that are the ones wearing the tin foil hats! I knew it!

The two main items that prolong the life of GBM (and level 3) patients are the initial (and ongoing) craniotomies and Temodar (the primary chemo treatment). These patients can sometimes live for years after these treatments, but the lifetime mean is much smaller - as you mention.