Robert Dill-Bundi was a great Swiss cycling champion.
In Moscow, in 1980 he won the gold medal for the 4000m individual pursuit chasing his nearest rival down and finishing six seconds clear as he rushed across the line. When he won he stepped off the bike kneeled and kissed the finish line. The Moscow crowd roared with appreciation.
In years that followed, his life took a terrible turn. Dill-Bundi was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 1999. He received surgery high doses of radiation to the head and a long course of chemotherapy.
The picture below shows his baseline MRI. The black regions at the front of his head in the MRI shows where he had surgery and the white inflammation is from a growing tumour.
At first, the treatment seemed to work. But just a year later the tumour grew back with a vengeance. Dill-Bundi was told by his doctors that he had about three months to live.
So he decided to look around for more experimental treatments. That’s when he heard about a company called Novocure. This company was experimenting with a treatment that used “electric” therapy to reduce the pace of growth of tumours using an electric skullcap.
For 18 hours a day Dill-Bundi wore this skullcap while it zapped away at the cancer cells growing in his brain. The results were slow at first. But we can see from his MRI that by month six the tumour had responded and had even begun to disappear. By month 12 it was completely gone.
Today Robert Dill-Bundi is alive and well. He is 60 years old. It’s a heartening story.
Although this story is complicated by the fact that in August 2013 the 57 year old cyclist lost awareness while behind the wheel of his BMW and crashed into eight vehicles injuring 11 people. He was convicted of causing two accidents and received a suspended sentence.
Meanwhile the company that developed his electric cap treatment Novocure (Nasdaq: NVCR) has become one of the great success stories in medical care.
The cap called Optune is essentially a portable power supply that works by sending an alternating range of frequencies to the tumour.
The cap comes with a set of adhesive patches or bandages that hold insulated ceramic discs, called ‘transducer arrays’, onto your shaved head, forming what looks like a skull cap. The arrays are attached by wires to a portable battery-powered device that is carried in a shoulder bag or backpack.
The battery-powered device creates alternating electrical fields, called Tumour Treating Fields or TTF. These fields are low intensity and disrupt the cell division process in rapidly dividing cells, such as tumour cells.
Patients are expected to wear the cap for at least 18 hours every day while also taking a standard chemotherapy drug known as temozolomide.
Other than a slight warming sensation the caps have not demonstrated any side effects. There is no significant pain, infections or extreme fatigue that might be expected with traditional cancer treatments.
The device was initially approved by the FDA for glioblastomas which are tumours of the brain or spine. And it has been hugely successful.
The results show prolonged survival in newly diagnosed patients with glioblastoma treated alongside temozolomide (TMZ). These patients have a 5-year survival rate of 13% compared to control patients, not using Optune, of 5%.
The average (median) overall survival, from the start of treatment, was 20.9 months in patients treated with Optune plus TMZ, compared to 16 months in patients treated with TMZ only.
What if this could be used on our organs?
Since then Novocure has been growing very quickly as this device has grown more and more popular with people who have glioblastoma multiforme [GBM].
But just a few weeks ago the FDA announced approval for a second condition for the device. This disease is called mesothelioma which is a cancer than lines the lungs the stomach and the heart. This is not a huge new market. Mesothelioma thankfully is a rare disease. There are about 3000 diagnoses a year in the US. But it might demonstrate that this type of therapy could be useful in combating cancers outside the brain.
That could include FDA approval for treatments in lung cancer pancreatic cancer and elsewhere.
In fact, we could be seeing a whole new field in medicine opening up that targets electrical activity in our cells.
Consider this: we have a charge across the membrane in our mitochondria that is amazingly powerful: about 30 million volts per metre which is the same as a bolt of lightning.
And what we’ve seen is that when cells are exposed to electric fields, the proteins that carry charges that can be interfered with to the extent that the cells don’t divide properly.
Electric fields can also regulate a whole variety of cell functions including growth adhesion, differentiation, proliferation, activation of intracellular pathways, secretion of proteins and gene expression.
There are already a whole host of biotech start ups focused solely on the mitochondria: drop us a message to exchange notes: firstname.lastname@example.org