Mar. 25, 1998 By transforming radio signals into a surgical laser, surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center are using high-energy radio frequency sound waves to destroy inoperable primary and metastatic liver tumors. The powerful procedure -- called radio frequency ablation -- is available exclusively in the Delaware Valley region at Penn's Cancer Center... and available at only a few select hospitals across the nation.
This technology enhances a surgeon's ability to access and successfully treat liver tumors -- which are commonly deemed "inoperable" due to their anatomical position inside the organ itself. "Many patients exhibit tumors in the liver that cannot be removed safely while still preserving the remaining organ," explains Frank Spitz, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery at Penn. "Or, a patient may have multiple tumors that make surgical extraction next to impossible." To get at those formerly inaccessible tumors via radio frequency ablation, surgeons use ultrasound as a visual roadmap to guide a needle-sized probe directly into the center of the cancerous tumor. Once inside the tumor, the tip of the probe is carefully opened to permit heat- delivering wire extensions to penetrate across a larger area of the tumor. Fully extended, the wire extensions resemble an opened umbrella against the tumor. Finally, the surgeon literally chars the tumorous tissue by zapping up to 100 watts of heat through the probe tip and attached tentacle-like extensions. The heat--similar to what is generated by a microwave oven--kills the tumor. Once all the tumor cells are dead, the body absorbs this tissue over time and no resection of the tumor is needed.
In a recently approved protocol, Penn's cancer specialists are studying the effectiveness of radio frequency ablation in destroying tumors. "We hope that the study results will indicate that the technique completely destroys tumors so that patients who, at this time, aren't able to undergo surgical removal of their tumors will have the option of the radio frequency ablation in the near future," notes Doug Fraker, MD, Chief of Surgical Oncology at Penn and principal investigator of the study. "This strategy to control tumors is the flipside of cryosurgery, which is a technique that has been available for over ten years, where very cold temperatures are used to freeze tumors in the liver. With radio frequency ablation, the heater probe has served advantageous over cryosurgery because a much smaller probe is used, which ultimately decreases vascular complications," Fraker concludes.
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