Health Check: Treating glioblastoma with electricity

Glioblastoma is the most aggressive and deadly type of brain tumor. (WJAR)

There is new hope for patients with deadly brain cancer.

"We tend to see about 80 to 100 glioblastomas in Rhode Island every year," said Dr. Steven Toms, a neurosurgeon at Rhode Island Hospital and the director of Lifespan’s Brain Tumor and Steriotactic Radiosurgery Program.

Many of his patients are diagnosed with the most aggressive and deadly type of brain tumor, a glioblastoma, which is what Sen. John McCain of Arizona was recently diagnosed with.

Here’s the problem, said Toms, referring to a patient he recently operated on.

"You can't get all of a tumor like this out even though I expect to see a post op MRI on this very shortly which will show no evidence of tumor. The tumors tend to migrate or infiltrate very widely, even when they're very small," Toms said.

Even with the standard of care: surgery, followed by radiation and chemotherapy, Toms says these tumors almost always grow back. That's the bad news. But there's hopeful news.

"When I started back here when I was a student at Brown, we were looking at survival rates of about nine months to 10 months. Now we've moved that up to almost two years with the latest studies," said Toms.

The most promising treatment, he says uses electricity.

"We just published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2015 of an interim analysis of a trial," said Toms. “I was part of and just sent in the paper for review two weeks ago that shows that in the 695 patients we treated with a novel electrical field called tumor treating fields the survival has now moved up to two years and slightly beyond."

Two of those patients, he says, are now six and a half years out with no sign of cancer.

So, how does this treatment work?

"The electrodes are applied to the side and the front of a shaved head and then they run to an electrical cord," said Toms.

"So when it's turned on it seems to interfere with the ability of cells to divide." The idea is to stop its spread.

Toms said he wouldn't be surprised if McCain is treated using this new electrical tumor treating fields therapy, after his tumor is removed. He said there are other promising treatments that are bringing us to the cusp of a possible cure for some.

He likens it to the death rate for kids with acute lymphoblastic leukemia which, back in the 1960s and '70s was almost always a death sentence and now it's 85 percent curable. Toms' now 20-year-old son is one of those survivors.

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