OPINION

Finding the right waves to cut breast cancer

FUTURE FRONTIER:The device, called the Proportional Integrative Derivative system, promises to make breast cancer surgery safer and less invasive. Picture shows the team at IIT-Ropar with the device. —PHOTO: IIT ROPAR  

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a World Health Organisation agency that decides on the carcinogenicity of a vast list of things, lists radio waves — those emitted by mobile phones, for example — as a “possible carcinogen”. However a team of researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar (IIT-R), in Punjab, are trying to use radio waves to treat breast cancer, the most common cause of cancer deaths among women in India.

Radio waves for treatment

Radio waves are a big chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum and indispensable for the working of several of our communication devices from radios to satellites. However, the higher the frequency of electromagnetic waves, the more energetic they are and the greater their chances of being harmful to the body. To tune radio waves for therapy, scientists employ the low- and medium-frequency range. Over the years this insight has been used to alleviate minor ailments such as neck and back pain but with improvements in how these waves can be finely controlled, there’s now increasing attention to using it to treat cancer.

In radiofrequency ablation treatment or RFA, cancerous tissue is burned off by poking a needle electrode through the skin into the tumour. Determining the right places to insert the needle needs high-resolution images of the infected region that are taken through a range of instrument such ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The high-frequency electrical currents are passed through the electrode, creating heat that destroys the cancer cells.

According to the American Radiology Association, RFA is an effective treatment option for patients who might have difficulty with surgery or those whose tumours are less than one and a half inches in diameter. The success rate for completely eliminating small liver tumours is greater than 85 per cent.

According to Dr. Ramjee Repaka, an associate professor at IIT-R, RF treatment for cancer is still an emerging area of research. It works better for liver cancer simply because liver tissue is relatively smooth and homogenous and therefore easier to image. He and his associates are more ambitious and want to tackle breast cancer, where cells are often clustered together and have vague boundaries, which makes successful detection extremely challenging.

“Breast tissue is far more difficult to model and so there’s been little attention paid to it so far,” says Dr. Repaka. In preliminary investigations in his lab so far, the researchers have tested these waves on synthetic gels that mimic breast tissue. “The challenge is to find the optimum temperature and the duration to safely target the radio waves,” he adds, “the next steps are to attempt this in cell lines (real tissue).”

Were such therapies to be successful, they could emerge as a competitor to conventional radiation and chemotherapy to treat cancer. Because they employ low-frequency waves, RF treatment would be far less likely to damage healthy tissue and also avoid the unpleasant side effects of such therapy.

An emerging area of research

Dr. Repaka may be helped by a report, this week, in the journal PLOS One. A team of researchers consisting of mathematicians from the Madras Christian College, Trinity College, Dublin and Christian Medical College, Vellore, claim to have applied a technique — usually used for detecting damaged surface areas on underwater marine structures such as bridge piers, offshore wind turbine platforms and pipelines — to distinguish healthy breast cells from infected ones.

While this work would typically be done by an expert team of pathologists, the researchers report having made a crucial step forward in automating the process while maintaining accuracy.

Professor Joy John Mammen, from the Christian Medical College, Vellore, India, said in a statement: “Detection of cancerous nuclei in high-grade breast cancer images is quite challenging and this work may be considered as a first step towards automating the prognosis.”

There aren’t yet any reliable estimates of how affordable such treatment is likely to be given that they are still in preliminary stages of testing.

Dr. Repaka was optimistic that it would be possible to ensure that patients would need fewer sittings or longer treatment than conventional radiation therapy.

jacob.koshy@thehindu.co.in



Were radiofrequency ablation treatment to be successful, it could emerge as a competitor

to chemotherapy