New Device Can Test Electric Field Cancer Therapies

Kristopher Sturgis

July 13, 2016

4 Min Read
New Device Can Test Electric Field Cancer Therapies

The new microfluidic device was designed to test the effects of electric fields on cancer cells, and identify which electric fields can keep malignant cells from spreading throughout the body.

Kristopher Sturgis

The microfluidic device was created at MIT's research center in Singapore, where it helped researchers observe how a range of low-intensity, middle-frequency electric fields actually stopped breast and lung cancer cells from growing and spreading, while having no negative effect on any surrounding healthy cells.

Researchers created the device--which is no larger than a credit card --to help scientists zero in on the safe ranges of electric fields that could be used to boost noninvasive treatments of breast, lung, and other forms of cancer. 

"Our device allows for the first time in literature to screen the TTF (tumor treating field) effects on cancer cells cultured in 3-D," says Giulia Adriani, research scientist from MIT's research center in Singapore and co-author on the work. "In fact, cancer cells are cultured in the device in a 3-D extracellular matrix to better capture the 3-D physiological cell behavior, compared to 2-D standard cell culture. Additionally, the possibility to culture cancer cell aggregates in the device allows to better mimic the 3-D physiological architecture of a malignant tumor mass compared to 2-D assays. These features, as well as an easy-handling and compatibility with microscopy techniques, could enhance the method of treatment for each type of cancer, and for each patient prior to treatment."

Scientists have spent the better part of the last decade experimenting with the use of electric fields to treat malignant cells, observing that the charged molecules inside tumor cells can respond to a low-frequency electric field--disrupting and ultimately preventing cell division and tumor growth.

"This device enables the screening for optimal therapeutic approaches to different cancers," says Roger Kamm, professor of mechanical and biological engineering at MIT and co-author on the work. "By optimal, I mean the highest killing rate for cancer cells and the lowest for other cells exposed to the electric field. Previously, it hasn't been possible to test out the different treatment settings (like field strength or frequency) prior to application for a particular patient for a particular cancer. Our system now enables that type of screening prior to application, and even before that, it will allow researchers to study the effects of an electric field on different types of cancer."

The microfluidic device is made of the gel-like polymer PDMS, and has small channels. Researchers then created a conductive mixture of micron-sized silver flakes and PDMS, cured it, and then injected it into two channels in the PDMS card to create two tiny separate electrodes. Between the two electrode channels, the researchers injected hydrogels with breast or lung cancer cells, as well as small tumor masses. They also injected in healthy human endothelial cells.


Each cell type in the 3-D matrix was then hit continuously with alternating electronic frequencies at 150 or 200 kHz at an intensity of 1.1 V/cm. The MIT researchers found that continuous electric field stimulation markedly reduced cancer cell proliferation, and small masses of lung cancer cells appeared to have their metastatic potential inhibited. 

Doctors from around the world have been looking for new innovative ways to target and treat cancer cells without harming other areas of the body. Earlier this year researchers from Mexico began experimenting with cancer-fighting nanoparticle therapies that looked to combine cancer fighting drugs with nanohydrogels. A few months later biologists from Tufts University outside of Boston announced a new gene therapy that uses light stimulation to prevent the formation of tumors. Both efforts showcase a trend in cancer treatment that looks to target specific areas of the body affected by tumor growth and provide treatments that won't adversely affect healthy cells in the body.

While Adriani and Kamm are quick to note that their device is not itself a tool to be used for treatment, it can be used as an effective means to test different treatment options to better understand which therapies will be most effective.

"This device will be useful to get insights into the electric field mechanisms and its effect on a variety of cancer and healthy cells," Adriani says. "The device itself is not a treatment option for cancer patients, but it could be used as a pre-clinical tool to test different treatment options and find the optimal one before its administration to patients in a clinical setting." 

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed.

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About the Author(s)

Kristopher Sturgis

Kristopher Sturgis is a freelance contributor to MD+DI.

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