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VOL. 132 | NO. 179 | Friday, September 8, 2017

Medical Technology Marks Brave New World In Treatment Of Serious Illnesses

By Michael Waddell

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Innovative medical technologies being developed in Memphis promise to revolutionize health care in the coming years.

Two technologies in particular have the medical community brimming with excitement: wearable medical technology that is just becoming widely available will help extend the lives of people with terminal brain cancer and a new medical device that should be available next year will ease the recovery for breast cancer and hernia surgery patients.

Baptist Memorial Health Care’s Dr. Aleksander Jankov recently began treating brain cancer patients with the Optune medical device, which fights glioblastoma multiforme – the type of brain cancer that U.S. Sen. John McCain is battling – by interrupting the process by which cancer cells divide and spread.

Patients wear the device on their heads, and wave-like electric fields slow or prevent the way cancer cells multiply.

Quentin Chandler wears a medical head device that sends electronic signals to confuse communication between cancer cells. Chandler puts the device on when he goes to sleep and wears it until about 2 p.m. every day. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“It’s the most aggressive type of brain cancer and it’s incurable, so it’s been really difficult to treat whatsoever for many years,” Jankov said. “The last breakthrough was in 2005 when we were able to push the survival by three months by combining a chemotherapy pill with radiation treatment.”

In April, Israel-based Novocure presented findings from a 700-person study showing that the Optune device, used along with the chemotherapy pill, helped to prolong their lives of patients with glioblastoma multiforme by an average of five months.

“So that was very important because it is the first wearable device used to treat a cancer, and not only any kind of cancer but a very aggressive type of brain cancer,” Jankov said.

When cancer cells are exposed to very low voltage (one to three volts), the proteins are altered. After taking an MRI and locating the tumor, the Optune device’s electrical field is designed specifically to treat the affected area and slow or disable the mitosis.

The device works only for brain cancer treatment because normal healthy brain cells are fixed and do not divide during the duration of a person’s life, as compared to cells in a person’s stomach lining and bowels that are completely replaced every three to five days.

So far, five patients at Baptist are receiving the new treatment, and it works best if they wear the device more than 18 hours per day, including while they sleep.

Meanwhile, University of Memphis associate professor Dr. Esra Roan and her former biomechanical engineering student Josh Herwig formed a new company, Somavac Medical Solutions, in 2016 to develop and bring to market a wearable medical device that will be used for patients recovering from a mastectomy or hernia surgery.

“We saw this opportunity to help patients so that they can recover more easily at home after surgeries,” said Roan, who works in the U of M’s Biomedical Engineering department in a joint graduate program with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Currently breast cancer and hernia patients go home following surgery with Jackson-Pratt (JP) drains, and the suction balls collect bodily fluids from the surgical sites for up to six weeks.

“They don’t work well, they’re extremely cumbersome, and patients often misuse them,” Roan said. “This comes from how so many people are sent home immediately after their surgeries, and so many medical devices are not really suited for that home use.”

So Roan and Herwig created a powered drain system that can suction the fluids continuously, and it designed to be easy concealed under clothing since it is very small. There are also fewer steps involved with use compared to the JP drains.

“So patients can go on with their lives,” Roan said. “We really would like to give them more of their dignity back during the recovery with a wearable device. JP drains are so terrible for home recovery. Patients have to hide, and they don’t want to go out in public.”

Roan and Herwig participated in the ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator program last year, and after graduating they raised the necessary funds to continue development. They are now in the pre-regulatory approval phase to market the device, and they plan to apply to the FDA in the first quarter of next year for approval.

“We’re in the business of bringing medical devices to solve problems that are somewhat overlooked and that can get to market quicker so they can help patients now rather than solutions that are 10 or 20 years out,” Roan said.

“We think there is a lot of need in the home health arena, and we feel very fortunate to be working on this problem because we think (as an industry) we need to do better for patients.”

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