Breast cancer patients could be treated without surgery following the development of a technique that destroys tumors by turning them into a ball of ice.
Doctors have begun treating women suffering from breast cancer in trials of the device, which uses a supercooled needle tip to repeatedly freeze then defrost tumours so that the harmful tissue is damaged and ultimately dies.
The technique, which does not require general anaesthetic and can be completed in about 15 minutes, could provide an alternative to surgery, which often requires women to stay in hospital for up to a week and can leave them with scars.
The needle is cooled to -274F (-170C) by pumping liquid nitrogen through a network of tiny tubes, allowing the surgeon to control the size of ice ball produced to ensure it freezes the entire tumour.
Scientists behind the device say it is possible to treat tumours up to the size of a golf ball. It has already been used on benign tumours and doctors have now begun a trial of the procedure in 30 breast cancer patients.
“The cells in the human body are made mainly of water, which means they freeze,” said Hezi Himmelfarb, the chief executive of IceCure Medical, the Israel-based company that has developed the system.
“There have been attempts before to use heat to destroy cancer cells like this but that can be extremely painful because our bodies are very sensitive to heat.
“Cold has an anaesthetising effect, so the patients feel very little pain during or after the procedure.
“We have developed the system so it can be carried out in a normal doctors’ surgery as it is minimally invasive and relatively quick.”
The procedure, known as cryoablation, controls the size of the ice ball produced to ensure that the tumour can be destroyed without damaging healthy tissue.
“There is very little scarring as it is only the needle that is inserted and the tumour does not need to be removed,” added Mr Himmelfarb.
The device has already been approved for use in the United States and IceCure is hoping to get European approval in the next year.
Nearly 50,000 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, with 18,000 mastectomies carried out. About 39,000 lumpectomies, where a lump is removed from the breast, are carried out annually.
One in five women who have a lumpectomy requires further surgery because not all of the tumour has been removed. It is hoped cryoablation will help to increase the amount of a tumour that can be destroyed.
Dr Eisuke Fukuma, director for breast cancer at the Kameda Medical Centre in Chiba, Japan, who is conducting the trial, has treated 13 patients and none has shown signs of recurrence yet.
“Cryoablation could be a tremendous tool for breast cancer treatment,” he said.
It is believed cryoablation could also be used to treat kidney, prostate and liver cancer.