A promising new cancer treatment that may one day replace radiation and chemotherapy is edging closer to human trials.
Kanzius RF therapy attaches microscopic nanoparticles to cancer cells and then "cooks" tumors inside the body with harmless radio waves.
Based on technology developed by Pennsylvania inventor John Kanzius, a retired radio and TV engineer, the treatment has proven 100 percent effective at killing cancer cells while leaving neighboring healthy cells unharmed. It is currently being tested at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
“I don’t want to give people false hope,” said Dr. Steve Curley, the professor leading the tests, “but this has the potential to treat a wide variety of cancers.”
Modern cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy have proven remarkably effective at treating many cancers, especially in combination, but are plagued with toxic side effects. These treatments kill healthy cells as well as cancerous ones.
Kanzius RF therapy is noninvasive, and uses nontoxic radio waves combined with gold or carbon nanoparticles, which have a long history of medical use.
Since the mid-1980s, scientists have been trying to create new medical therapies to take advantage of their tiny size. Nanoparticles made of gold, carbon and other materials can move through the bloodstream and through cell walls, allowing for efficient drug delivery, or to act like a homing devices for research purposes.
However, questions about the safety of nanoparticles are largely unanswered. Nonetheless, the potential of nanoparticles to create novel treatments has become a central thrust of many fields of medicine, including oncology.
At M.D. Anderson, Curley's research team is working on coating microscopic gold nanoparticles with cancer-seeking molecules. The proteins act as a filter that ensures nanoparticles attach only to cancerous cells in the body.
“We’re looking into gold because it is FDA-approved and has a track record of being tolerated in humans,” said Dr. Christopher Gannon, assistant professor at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, who collaborated with M.D. Anderson.
When the gold nanoparticles are inside the malignancy, a blast from a radio-frequency generator causes them to heat and cook the cancer cells.
In trials with animal and human cells, the RF treatment destroyed 100 percent of malignant cells injected with nanoparticles, without harming surrounding healthy tissue.
A study in the November 2007 issue of the journal Cancer showed that tumor cells infused with nanoparticles and exposed to the electromagnetic field of the RF generator died within 48 hours of treatment, with no noted side effects.
A study in the Journal of Nanobiotechnology in January 2008 showed that destruction of human pancreatic cancer cells was 100 percent effective — again producing no noticeable side effects.
“We know it has the potential to work well,” said Gannon. "It’s just a matter of making the details work."
The problem is finding cancer-seeking molecules that are attracted to cancer cells but leave healthy cells alone.
Curley's team has identified a targeting molecule, c225 , which is FDA-approved. While c225 is present in many cancer cells, it also occurs in healthy cells.
“It will depend on the type of cancer and the targeting molecules attached to the nanoparticles,” Curley said.
The radio-frequency generator was invented by Kanzius, who underwent chemotherapy in 2003 and 2004 for leukemia. Kanzius declined to be interviewed for this story, citing an exclusive agreement with CBS News. 60 Minutes has scheduled a segment about Kanzius RF therapy for Sunday.
“His device helped inspire us to create the targeted nanoparticles to make it a fully functional clinical device,” said Gannon.
Kanzius is now working on a larger CT-scanner-sized device that will help scientists test larger subjects by this summer — and pave the way for human trials.
Curley, who described himself as the "ultimate skeptic," thinks the treatment is only a few years away.
"The best-case scenario is that we would be able to clinical trials within three years,” he said.