In The Netherlands, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer: 1 in 9 women will develop it over their lifetime (N.B.: in the US, it is 1 in 8). Up until the 1980s, the way to cure breast cancer was via radical, destructive treatment (i.e. breast amputation, chest muscle or axillary dissection). Dr. William S. Halsted said breast cancer is an aggressive disease which can only be controlled by aggressive surgery. His colleague Dr. Bernard Fisher contended in the 1970s it was a more local, systemic disease, and advocated as well as developed breast conservation surgery; a small resection for local control.
Though treatment already has much improved over the years, there is hope for the next step. A non-invasive procedure, coming from a combined effort of Philips Healthcare and the University Medical Center (UMC) in Utrecht: High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU) combined with MRI. The technology is not new; studies on HIFU started in 2001, however, these showed disappointing success rates (20-50%), most importantly because they were not wholly committed to breast cancer.
Now, through development of a lateral, dedicated device, energy can be concentrated where it’s needed. Also, the circular construction avoids potential interference with heart and/or lungs, as could happen previously. By converting ultrasound waves into a focal point, localized heat is generated, causing instantaneous necrosis in the cancer tissue, while leaving the skin intact. An MRI machine provides (real-time) imaging to assess results.
Similar treatments have proven successful in cases of fibroids and bone cancer, and – as it stands now – around 25% of women stand to benefit from the new development, women with (relatively) small tumors that have not metastasized. The prognosis is that in approximately 5 years, this will be the preferred procedure for a growing number of fields of oncology. Aside from inherent risks associated with invasive surgery, cosmetic results are essentially a non-issue, and the patient can typically leave hospital the same day, saving significantly on health cost.
After many ex-vivo (out-of-body) tests, last Friday UMC treated the first live patient with the new device. Needless to say it is too early to call it a success, though results are very promising. Still, if nothing else, the study is taking off, which in and of itself is excellent news.
(Sources: American Cancer Society, NOS, Philips Healthcare)