Electrocuting Liver Cancer?

March 8, 2010 7:55:42 AM PST
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 22,000 cases of liver cancer were diagnosed last year, and the disease caused more than 18,000 deaths. Although it's common for cancer to spread to the liver from other organs like the colon, lungs and breasts, the disease is not liver cancer unless it begins in the liver.

Currently, the only hope of a liver cancer cure is surgery, according to the American Cancer Society. Surgeons perform operations to remove the tumor or do a liver transplant. Often, the cancer is large, in many different parts of the liver, or has spread outside the liver, making treatment difficult.

While a liver transplant is an option for people with small liver cancers, not many livers are available for transplant to patients with cancer since they are most often used for more curable diseases, the American Cancer Society says. Because of this, doctors often suggest a surgery to remove as much cancer as possible and then a transplant if the cancer returns. Even if a patient receives a liver transplant to cure cancer, they must rely on immunosuppressive drugs -- which carry side effects of serious infections and other health problems -- throughout their lifetime to retain the organ.

ELECTROCUTING TUMORS: Some liver cancer patients are candidates for a treatment called ablation. Ablation involves destroying a tumor without removing it, but is most often used for patients with a few small tumors that cannot be removed for surgery. Ablation techniques aren't designed to cure liver cancer, but to help patients live longer.

A new type of ablation is based on a technique called electrophoresis, which involves using electrical energy to alter cell membranes and allow chemotherapy drugs to enter more freely. The technique used in the past to deliver chemotherapy -- called reversible electrophoresis -- allowed the cell membranes to close up again. In a new treatment called irreversible electrophoresis, interventional radiologists use a higher voltage to cause permanent damage to cancer cells. The radiologists place probes through 2 to 3 mm incisions around a cancerous tumor and connect them to a generator. The generator is turned on and fires an electrical pulse that travels to the tumor cells.

"The probes generate very high-voltage electricity, and what that does is it creates multiple holes in the cell membrane and kills the cell organelles, but leaves the cell membrane intact," Govindarajan Narayanan, M.D., chief of Vascular Interventional Radiology at the University of Miami in Miami, Fla., told Ivanhoe. "The body removes the dead cell membranes like it's a part of a dead cell in the body, so when the healing process takes place, it almost looks like the tumor was not there ? whereas with radiofrequency oblation and cryoablation, you have a scar."

The procedure is guided by CT scans or ultrasound and has been used to treat lung and pancreatic cancer. Doctors also plan to use irreversible electrophoresis in the treatment of kidney cancer. Dr. Narayanan says if the tumor being treated is close to a lung, there is a risk of pneumothorax, or partial collapse of the lung.


Lisa Worley
Media Relations
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine
(305) 243-5184