Brain cancers are traditionally treated with a combination of surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or other targeted drug treatments. But when these therapies fail, doctors are forced to look for alternative treatments. Such was the case recently when researchers from Houston Methodist Neurological Institute used a magnetic helmet to shrink the brain tumor of a patient by more than a third – from the comfort of his own home, no less.
The findings of this world-first human test are published in Frontiers in Oncology and represent a potential new non-invasive therapy for treating brain cancers.
The 53-year-old patient was suffering from end-stage recurrent glioblastoma – an aggressive, but rare, cancer of the brain and spinal cord – and had undergone unsuccessful surgery, chemoradiotherapy, and experimental gene therapy prior to the study. The prognosis of glioblastoma is rarely a positive one – life expectancy is generally a maximum of two years, and the survival rate after five years is just 4 percent. Current treatments tend to be physically demanding, hence the need for newer, less invasive options. Progress has been made in this area recently: a brain cancer vaccine was successful in human trials, in cell and mouse models a gene-editing approach using CRISPR enhanced survival and reduced tumor size, and, unusually, a diarrhea treatment has been linked to induced glioblastoma cell death. And now the pioneering tumor-shrinking helmet can be added to the list.
Initially developed for use in mouse models, the device was granted FDA approval for use on the patient on compassionate grounds following the recurrence of his cancer in August 2019. In April 2020, the patient began treatment, which was well-tolerated, and after just 36 days, the tumor had shrunk by 31 percent. The patient sadly passed away due to an unrelated head injury not long after.
"Thanks to the courage of this patient and his family, we were able to test and verify the potential effectiveness of the first non-invasive therapy for glioblastoma in the world," said corresponding author David S. Baskin, MD, FACS, FAANS in a statement.
The helmet itself is actually an “Oncomagnetic Device” that uses an oscillating magnetic field to disrupt the transportation of electrons – negatively charged particles – in mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of our cells. The effect is that glioblastoma cells are killed off, whilst healthy cells remain unharmed, as this disruption only occurs in the presence of compounds produced exclusively by the tumor cells. Despite the simple appearance of the helmet, there is a lot going on here – three pairs of rotating magnets are attached to the helmet and connected to a rechargeable battery. The magnetic fields generated by these magnets were initially applied intermittently for two hours whilst under supervision at the clinic and later were administered at home by the patient’s wife for up to a maximum of six hours per day.
With such a small sample size, the findings are by no means conclusive, but they offer, at the very least, a glimmer of hope in the search for novel, non-invasive glioblastoma therapies.
"Our results in the laboratory and with this patient open a new world of non-invasive and nontoxic therapy for brain cancer, with many exciting possibilities for the future," said Baskin.