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Electric cap helps patients with aggressive brain cancer live longer

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A cap with the power to help cancer patients live longer sounds like something out of science fiction, but this very real scientific discovery is doubling the life expectancy of people with an aggressive and incurable brain cancer, a new study finds.

WGN first covered the caps years ago when patients began to try them. Now a worldwide study shows they work.

Many men this time of year wear skull caps to keep them warm -- Mike Cardinale wears an electronic cap to keep him alive! Diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2016, Mike knew the odds. Many patients only survive this aggressive and fatal brain cancer for one to two years.

Most receive chemotherapy after an attempt to remove some of the tumor, with the goal of slowing tumor growth. But Northwestern Medicine offered Mike an electronic option to cap off his treatment.

“It’s sort of empowering that you are fighting in some way instead of sitting back and waiting for tumor to grow,” Cardinale said. “After this really poor diagnosis, all the treatment stuff has been great.”

Roger Stupp, a Northwestern Medicine neuro-oncologist, said he's satisfied with the progress in treatment options  — even if it has been slow.

"When I started in the field 20 years ago, we usually lost most of our patients within a year, and at two-years-time we had only 10 percent of patients or less alive. Now we’re going to 43, so we’re approaching half of the patients,” Dr. Stupp said.

Insulated electrodes are attached to Mike’s shaved scalp. Those electrodes are connected to a battery-powered device that delivers an electrical field to brain tissue. The currents don't interfere with healthy tissue, but instead target dividing cells that contribute to tumor growth.

“If these dividing cells are exposed to an electrical field it will interfere with the cell division process," Dr. Stupp said. "Ultimately the cells will go into programmed cell death — they will destroy themselves.”

Patients who got surgery, chemo and the cap lived longer. Their tumors grew more slowly. Dr. Stupp said the big challenge in glioma is that cells can migrate outside of what the surgeon can take out.

"With the tumor treating field, we treat large part of the brain where the cells may have migrated, so a cell that is down here would still be caught when it is dividing," Dr. Stupp said. "So the cells that stay behind after radiation and after surgery would be treated with the tumor treating fields.”

For Mike, the technology translates to more time with loved ones. Another bonus is unlike chemotherapy, patients did not report negative side effects wearing the electrodes.

“Generally, I’m wearing it as often as I can. There’s no negative side effects so my oncologist said, ‘Well, keep wearing it,’" Mike said.

Doctors are hoping it won’t just work on the brain, and they believe this technology may have applications for other cancers as well.

“I hope one day we can have this interview and I say, ‘I retire. My job is done.' We’re not yet there, but we are getting there,” Dr. Stupp said.