A new cancer therapy based on electrical fields, which has seen promising results in patients in the US and elsewhere, has launched in Hong Kong, bringing hope to patients suffering from a deadly brain tumour known as glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). Optune, the name of this innovative cancer treatment, is an electrical therapy device also known as Tumour Treating Fields (TTFields). Its introduction is the result of a collaborative effort between TTFields company Novocure in the US, and biotech firm Zai Lab in China. Novocure licensed its medical technology to the Shanghai-based company to promote TTFields in Asia, including Hong Kong and China. Optune helps fight GBM, which is a malignant brain tumour that is the most aggressive type and difficult to treat. Patients battling this disease face a dismal prognosis: less than 5 per cent of patients survive five years after diagnosis. In Hong Kong, one or two people out of 100,000 are affected. In China, the disease afflicts 45,000 people annually. Breakthrough drug offers hope of longer life to brain cancer sufferers Since September last year, Zai Lab has treated four patients in Hong Kong with this novel therapy and plans to treat patients from China too, according to the company’s CEO, Dr Samantha Du. “We bring this breakthrough to Hong Kong hoping that it can help many patients … to prolong their lives and give them more time with their family and friends,” Du said at a press conference to introduce the device. She added that this treatment is unique, as patients can carry on with their normal day-to-day activities as they wear it. One of the patients that underwent this treatment in Hong Kong, a local cook surnamed Wong, was diagnosed with GBM and underwent surgery to excise the brain tumour as well as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. He started electrical therapy in January this year. According to Zai Lab, Wong wears the device for 18 hours a day and continues to undergo treatment. He no longer experiences symptoms such as nausea and seizures. The original premise of TTFields, conceived by professor Yoram Palti from the Israel Institute of Technology, is to create an electric field around the tumour to disrupt the growth and reproduction of cancer cells in the brain. This non-invasive strategy results in cancer cell death. According to Bill Doyle, Novocure’s executive chairman, unlike radiation and chemotherapy therapies, Optune relies on electrical properties, rather than chemical, to fight cancer. “It turns out in our body, many of our proteins are charged. In fact, proteins involved in cell division are among the most charged proteins in the body,” he explains. Standard care such as chemotherapy kills cancer cells along with healthy ones, resulting in negative side effects, but this new therapy is more target-specific. Cancer cells have a specific frequency, while normal cells have different electrical properties. This electrical therapy is fine-tuned to the specific frequency of cancer cells and as a result only targets these and not healthy cells, Doyle says. “As a result, we see no systemic toxicity with TTFields,” he says, adding that this treatment is combined with standard cancer care such as chemotherapy and radiation to provide better results for patients. We are not just treating the specific tumour, but the whole region around the tumour Bill Doyle, executive chairman, Novocure The Optune device is composed of two parts. The electric field generator is a boxlike device weighing about a kilogram (2.2 pounds), and is carried in a knapsack or handbag. It is connected to bandages that are fixed to the patient’s scalp and the electric fields target the tumour. These “transducer arrays” are changed every three days. “We are not just treating the specific tumour, but the whole region around the tumour, so the [tumour cancer] cells that have spread which are not able to be removed surgically or treated with radiation can also be treated,” Doyle explains. “We are able to treat these cells in the whole region over a long period of time.” In an initial large-scale clinical trial involving 695 GBM patients to test Optune, it was found that 43 per cent of those that received standard care plus this therapy lived two years or more longer than the group that underwent only chemotherapy. The results of this study were published in the Journal of American Medical Association in 2015. The device was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and the CE, or Conformité Européenne, of the European Union. According to Doyle, in the US about 40 per cent of all GMB patients receive a prescription for Optune. The device is also available in Germany, Japan and now Hong Kong.