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MIT 'Star Wars' technology may treat breast cancer

An MIT researcher's work 10 years ago on "Star Wars" technology to detect missiles is now being applied to the treatment of breast cancer.

In an ongoing clinical trial, seven women have received the treatment, in which focused microwave radiation is used to heat -- and kill -- breast cancer cells.

Dr. Alan J. Fenn, senior staff member in the Advanced Electromagnetic Systems Group at Lincoln Laboratory, described the procedure and his invention of it in a Channel 7 news program on May 19. Last month Dr. Robert Gardner, a physician conducting the clinical trial with Dr. Hernan Vargas, presented a poster on the work at the annual meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons. Dr. Gardner is at Columbia Hospital in West Palm Beach, FL; Dr. Vargas is at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, CA.


"About 10 years ago we were working on radar antijamming technology to detect missiles from space-borne satellites," Dr. Fenn explained. Then, with the end of the Cold War, the scientists were asked to explore alternative applications of the technology. "I thought, why couldn't we use the microwave energy [that is key to the radar technology] on cancer cells?" Treating cancer with heat is not a new idea, but "researchers were having trouble using it to treat tumors deep within the body," he said. Further, it's tricky to deliver the heat only to cancer cells and not overheat normal tissue.

The microwave signals in the new technique "heat and kill cells containing high amounts of water," he said. Cancer cells have a high water content -- around 80 percent -- while healthy breast tissue contains much less.

The seven women treated so far (three more have yet to be treated) received the microwave treatment for 20 minutes, during which their cancer cells were heated to about 115 degrees. A week later, the researchers found that "tumors typically had shrunk by 50 percent or more," Dr. Fenn said. As part of this FDA-approved study, the patients had mastectomies seven to 10 days after the thermotherapy treatment, so it was not possible to see the tumor shrink away completely.

In future clinical trials, the doctors may apply a second treatment that might eliminate the cancer faster. "Our goal is to destroy all visible and microscopic cancer cells and precancerous cells in the breast," Dr. Fenn said. That would eliminate the need for surgery and conventional radiation treatments. He noted, however, that if the cancer has spread, the patient would still need chemotherapy.

Currently the procedure uses two tiny needle probes to sense and measure parameters during treatment. "Patients treated so far have gone home with only one or two Band-Aids," Dr. Fenn said. He expects that in the future, the procedure will be noninvasive.


Side effects appear to be minimal. The only significant effects noted so far have been a slight fever a few days following treatment. The next clinical trial -- which will include 100 patients who will be treated for early-stage or advanced breast cancer -- could be completed within a year at five hospitals, Dr. Fenn said. The technique could also be potentially applied to other cancers. The researchers hope to focus next on prostate cancer.

The original MIT Lincoln Laboratory research was funded by the Department of the Air Force. Dr. Fenn has received four US patents on the technology, which is under exclusive license from MIT to Celsion Corp. in Columbia, MD.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 2000.

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