• Left: To detect and destroy an enemy missile, microwave energy is targeted on the missile while nullifying enemy jammers. Right: To kill a cancerous tumor, microwave energy is focused on the tumor while nullifying any energy that would overheat surrounding health tissue.

    Left: To detect and destroy an enemy missile, microwave energy is targeted on the missile while nullifying enemy jammers. Right: To kill a cancerous tumor, microwave energy is focused on the tumor while nullifying any energy that would overheat surrounding health tissue.

    Image / MIT Lincoln Lab

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MIT radar research used to fight breast cancer

Left: To detect and destroy an enemy missile, microwave energy is targeted on the missile while nullifying enemy jammers. Right: To kill a cancerous tumor, microwave energy is focused on the tumor while nullifying any energy that would overheat surrounding health tissue.


A breast cancer treatment based on MIT radar research that was originally intended to detect space-borne missiles is showing promise in the final phase of clinical testing.

Since October 2002, 90 women with early-stage breast cancer have enrolled in the study, in which microwave energy focused externally on the breast is delivered to tumors prior to lumpectomy.

Preliminary results, based on the 64 women who have completed the study, were presented April 21 at the 9th International Congress on Hyperthermic Oncology. They show that women with early-stage breast cancer who received the MIT treatment prior to lumpectomy had a 43 percent reduction in the incidence rate of cancer cells found close to the surgical margins. This is important because additional breast surgery and/or radiation therapy are often recommended for patients that have cancer cells close to the edge of the lumpectomy surgical margin.

"One of the primary objectives of this randomized study is to demonstrate that heat can affect and kill early-stage breast cancer cells prior to surgery," said William Dooley, director of surgical oncology at the University of Oklahoma Breast Institute and principal investigator of the study. "With this focused heat treatment, it may be possible for the surgeon to provide better margins for the patient and possibly avoid additional treatment procedures and recurrence of the cancer."

Treating cancer with heat is not a new idea, but "researchers were having trouble using it to treat tumors deep within the body," said Alan Fenn, a senior staff member at Lincoln Laboratory and inventor of the technique (MIT Tech Talk, Jan. 10, 2001). Further, it's difficult to deliver the heat only to cancer cells and not overheat normal tissue.

The microwaves in the new technique heat--and kill--cells containing high amounts of water. Cancer cells have a high water content (around 80 percent), while healthy breast tissue contains much less.

The outpatient procedure uses a single tiny needle probe to sense and measure parameters during treatment. Side effects appear to be minimal.

Patients in the thermotherapy group of the current study receive a heat treatment prior to surgery and radiation therapy, while patients in the control group receive surgery alone prior to radiation. Preliminary results indicate that in the thermotherapy group, 5 of 30 (16.7 percent) patients had tumor cells close to the surgical margins, whereas in the group receiving surgery alone, 10 of 34 (29.4 percent) patients had tumor cells close to the margin.

The women participating in this clinical trial are being treated at the University of Oklahoma, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, the Comprehensive Breast Center, the Mroz-Baier Breast Care Clinic and other breast centers in the United States.

Previous Phase II, or dose-escalation, results of the breast cancer heat treatment were reported in the February 2004 issue of the Annals of Surgical Oncology. The data for breast cancer patients treated in the dose-escalation trial were submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which resulted in FDA approval to proceed with the randomized trial currently underway.

Celsion Corp. exclusively licenses the technology from MIT. The company developed the clinical thermotherapy system and funds the current study. The Air Force funded Fenn's original research.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 28, 2004.


Topics: Cancer, Health sciences and technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E)

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