As one of the deadliest forms of cancer, mesothelioma has been a focus of much passionate medical research. Apart from finding an outright cure, doctors are also looking to find new ways to extend the lifespans of patients who have been diagnosed with this terminal illness.
One promising new development in that search is a technology called Tumor Treating Fields (TTFields). Using TTFields to treat mesothelioma involves “zapping” cancer cells with specific electrical frequencies in the hopes of slowing the growth of tumors or perhaps even shrinking them.
Early studies suggest that, while far from an outright cure, TTFields may dramatically improve patient outcomes and long-term survival rates. It is, as far as mesothelioma research goes, a potential game-changer.
But to understand why requires a deeper understanding of the unique challenges of fighting mesothelioma.
Why Is Mesothelioma So Deadly?
Mesothelioma’s low survival rate can be attributed to two factors: latency and rarity.
First, consider how one develops the disease: The only known cause is exposure to asbestos — a naturally occurring mineral used as a fireproofing and insulation material. When someone develops mesothelioma, they often don’t experience any symptoms until 20-50 years after their exposure to asbestos.
Once symptoms do appear, however, it is often too late: Mesothelioma is typically discovered only after it has reached its advanced stages.
The other challenge with treating mesothelioma is that it’s relatively rare. About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Compare that to the roughly 281,000 cases of breast cancer that are reported annually. As a result, mesothelioma research does not receive the kind of urgent funding that’s typical among other, more common forms of cancer.
Combined with the challenge of early discovery, the lack of medical research contributes to a 5-year survival rate of just 10%.
Immunotherapy and the Future of TTFields
Despite mesothelioma’s poor prognosis, there has been some progress. One avenue is immunotherapy, which refers to treatments that leverage the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.
Researchers are currently working on a promising class of new drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors (CIs), which help immune cells better target cancer cells. Other researchers are looking into vaccines. Yes, that’s right: cancer vaccines.
Traditional vaccines work by introducing the immune system to a very small amount of virus or bacteria, thereby allowing the body to build the necessary antibodies to fight the contagion should it appear again in the future. A cancer vaccine would work in a similar manner, helping the body’s natural immune cells better identify and target invasive cancer cells.
However, despite promising research in immunotherapy, neither of the above treatments are anywhere near ready for deployment against mesothelioma. When it comes to mesothelioma, the most promising new area of study may be TTFields.
What Are TTFields and How Do They Work?
The term “TTFields” refers to the practice of zapping cancer cells with electricity in an effort to disrupt the growth of cancer cells. The potential for treating mesothelioma with TTFields has attracted a lot of attention.
The technology has already been approved to treat mesothelioma by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), making it the first new mesothelioma treatment approved by the agency in over 15 years. A recent study from 2020 saw the median survival rate for mesothelioma patients increase by over 30%.
So, how does treatment with TTFields actually work? First, pads are attached to the patient’s skin over the site of the tumor(s). These pads, or “transducer arrays,” emit precise electrical frequencies that prevent mesothelioma cells from growing and may, in some cases, shrink or even kill tumor cells. That the treatment is non-invasive is another cause for excitement, especially for older patients who may not be able to handle an invasive surgery.
Currently, treatment by TTFields is only approved for use against pleural mesothelioma, which is the form of mesothelioma that affects the lungs. Pleural mesothelioma is also the most common form of mesothelioma, accounting for 75% of all cases.
What Does the Data Say About TTFields?
As the treatment is new, more research is required to determine the true efficacy of TTFields. But recent clinical trials have shown promising results, especially among patients facing an inoperable diagnosis (also known as “unresectable mesothelioma”).
In a clinical trial that lasted from 2015 to 2017, 80 late-stage mesothelioma patients received TTField treatment alongside chemotherapy. The survival rates among these patients increased dramatically compared with standard treatments.
After two years, 41.9% of the patients who received the treatment were still alive, which is a stunning improvement compared with the standard 17% two-year-survival rate for patients with stage 4 pleural mesothelioma.
The trial also saw an improvement in the average life expectancy for all participants: an overall increase of roughly 6 to 10 months.
Additional Benefits of TTFields
TTFields may not be the outright cure to mesothelioma that researchers, advocates, patients, and families are looking for, but alongside existing treatments, it stands to dramatically improve the lifespan of patients suffering from one of the deadliest forms of cancer in existence.
Apart from being effective, treatment by TTFields does not compromise the patient’s comfort or quality of life, as is common with chemotherapy and radiation, which can cause hair loss, pain, and fatigue. Among the clinical trials conducted so far, the worst reported side effect for TTFields is minor skin irritation.
Also, the device used to administer TTFields is far more convenient than radiation and chemotherapy, as it is portable and does not require a hospital visit.
TTFields is still new, but already researchers are considering it to be a “fourth modality” in the fight against cancer — alongside surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. And it’s not just for mesothelioma: Scientists hope to leverage the technology to treat brain cancer as well. Who knows what other applications may soon be on the horizon?
Who Qualifies for TTFields?
If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you can ask your doctor about TTFields and whether or not you may be a candidate. As mentioned, the procedure is currently only approved for patients suffering from pleural mesothelioma.
Additionally, patients with pacemakers or other implanted electronic devices are also disqualified from being treated with TTFields. The FDA further discourages patients who are allergic to hydrogels (a gel that creates a barrier between the skin and the transducer arrays).
While patients and families suffering from a recent mesothelioma diagnosis may be disappointed at the lack of progress in finding a cure, they can perhaps find solace in the prospect of an extended lifespan.
As part of a larger treatment regimen, TTFields could potentially add years to a patient’s life — an incredible step in the ongoing fight against malignant mesothelioma.