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Novel brain tumor treatment may extend lives of UCI Health patients

June 30, 2014

Kristina Sirca calls it the “head zapper,” an array of electrodes worn on her scalp to generate a low intensity electrical field that has, for nearly a year, prevented her brain tumor from returning.

The Fullerton resident is one of two dozen UCI Health patients treated with the novel therapy, said Dr. Daniela Bota, director of the UCI Health Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program. The device, called NovoTTF, is an FDA-approved treatment for recurrent glioblastoma multiform, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. More than 10,000 people are diagnosed with it each year.

“This gives us another tool against the disease,” Bota says. “Cancer is uncontrolled cell growth and this device generates an electrical field that disrupts cell division.”

Since healthy brain tissue in an adult does not grow, NovaTTF only disrupts the cancer, reversing tumor growth and causing cell destruction. 

The early promise shown in UCI Health patients is consistent with that of more than 450 others around the country, according to data the therapy manufacturer Novocure published at the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists, the world’s largest gathering of cancer physicians.

The ASCO abstract study found that patients treated with NovoTTF therapy achieved a median overall survival of 9.6 months, which is the longest overall survival of any FDA-approved recurrent glioblastoma treatment to date. Overall survival from the time of recurrence has been reported at three- to five months without active treatment. 

“The study data show that this therapy can be used safely and effectively in patients treated outside of a clinical trial,” says Bota, who is an author of the study. “We hope to prolong the lives of many patients who have this terrible disease.”

A retired school teacher, Sirca, 67, was diagnosed with a glioblastoma in 2012. She underwent surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment at a community hospital. However, a blood condition interfered with chemotherapy and the tumor returned within a year. After a second surgery, Sirca’s oncologist referred her to Bota to explore other options. UC Irvine Medical Center has one of the few NovoTTF programs on the West Coast.

Sirca said Bota introduced the NovaTFF array displayed on a mannequin named Fred the Head.  While it looked odd, she said she understood the concept and was willing to try it.

She now carries a battery pack that powers the disks attached to her scalp. Sirca can also plug it into another power source, like an electrical outlet.

“I don’t necessarily feel the electrical impulses,” she said. “But I do feel some tingling and they sometimes generate a little heat.”

“My doctors have made no secret about how serious and aggressive this cancer is – it’s not curable,” Sirca said. “However, this (treatment) has given me an extra year."

That time has allowed her to knit a quite a few more caps for Knots of Love, a group of volunteers that make beanies for chemotherapy patients. 

“I’m up to 3,480 caps,” Sirca said.

As an FDA-approved therapy, Medicare and many private insurances cover NovoTFF treatments. Details are available from the UCI Health Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program or by calling 877-824-9111.

UCI Health comprises the clinical, medical education and research enterprises of the University of California, Irvine. Patients can access UCI Health at physician offices throughout Orange County and at its main campus, UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, Calif., a 412-bed acute care hospital that provides tertiary and quaternary care, ambulatory and specialty medical clinics, behavioral health and rehabilitation. U.S. News & World Report has listed it among America’s Best Hospitals for 13 consecutive years. UC Irvine Medical Center features Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, high-risk perinatal/neonatal program, Level I trauma center and Level II pediatric trauma center, and is the primary teaching hospital for UC Irvine School of Medicine. UCI Health serves a region of more than 3 million people in Orange County, western Riverside County and southeast Los Angeles County. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.