Health Check: New experimental cancer treatments

Three years ago, Betty Charland was diagnosed with rectal cancer.

"It used to be the common way you'd treat rectal cancer is you'd use radiation therapy with a drug to help the radiation work better, then you'd do surgery and then you'd give chemotherapy afterwards. We changed the sequence in how treatment is given," said Dr. Howard Safran, a researcher and oncologist with The Miriam Hospital and Rhode Island Hospital.

Charland, who was part of a new clinical trial in 2010, and coordinated by the Brown University oncology research group was given chemotherapy first.

"Then I went and had radiation with the new study drug," she said.

The plan was to shrink Charland's tumor enough in preparation for surgery.

"We found that this appears to be a more effective way of treating rectal cancer," Safran said.

Three years after she was diagnosed, Charland is cancer-free.

When asked how her quality of life was now, she said, "I'm back to normal."

Charles Gates was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer seven months ago.

"It used to be there was only one drug that we had to treat it," Safran said. "Now there are a variety of new drugs that are becoming available and Charlie got a combination of very active drugs that are also delivered in a certain way to try to reduce the side effects."

That portion of his treatment was part of a clinical trial coordinated by the Brown oncology research group.

Dr. Kevin Charpentier, a surgeon at Rhode Island Hospital, performed a new type of procedure on a tumor that was inoperable.

"Irreversible electroporation is a novel form of tumor ablation. I would say it still should be considered experimental, and it does not rely on heat to kill the cancer. It's short pulses of high frequency electrical current to literally punch holes in the cell membranes. And by varying the intensity and duration of the electrical field, we can make those holes an irreversible process the cells can't recover from and they go on to die," he said.

Gates was the first in New England to have the procedures.

"The real stars of the research we do are the patients," Charpentier said.

Gates said he's just glad there's something new to battle a cancer that is usually deadly.

"We have it at bay. My plan is to, with the help of the team, to beat it," he said.

That plan includes chemo and radiation therapies in the coming months to help shrink his tumor enough to be able to safely remove it.