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Retired teacher's outlook, novel treatment keep brain tumor at bay

Therapy relies on electrical field to destroy cancer cells

August 13, 2014

Kristina Sirca calls the array of electrodes on her scalp the “head zapper.” While it looks odd, the zapper has an important role: It prevents the return of a brain tumor that’s been removed twice before.

A retired school teacher, Sirca, 67, was diagnosed in 2012 with glioblastoma multiform, the most aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer. More than 12,000 people annually are diagnosed with it. She underwent surgery at a local community hospital to remove the tumor followed by rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatment designed to kill the remaining cancer cells.

However, Sirca was unable to tolerate the chemotherapy due to a blood condition and the tumor returned within a year. After a second surgery, her doctor suggested she see a neuro-oncologist to determine whether other treatment options were available. Though Sirca had several choices in Southern California, her husband John remembered a newspaper article about Dr. Daniela Bota’s work on a brain tumor vaccine.

“We decided to see Dr. Bota at UC Irvine,” she says.

Sirca was not a candidate for a tumor vaccine clinical trial, so Bota, director of the UCI Health Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program, suggested she try a new therapy called NovoTTF, which is designed to interrupt tumor regrowth.

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

Since healthy adult brain tissue does not grow, NovoTTF only disrupts the cancer, causing cell destruction and reversing tumor growth. UC Irvine Medical Center has one of the few NovoTTF programs on the West Coast.

The system consists of three sets of three thin ceramic disks, or transducers, affixed to her scalp under a rectangular-shaped adhesive that looks like a bathing cap made of white medical tape. Sirca began using the device early last August. She now carries a battery pack that powers the system in a gray backpack. The system can also be plugged into another power source, like an electrical outlet.

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

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

The Fullerton resident is one of two dozen UCI Health patients being treated with the novel therapy. The NovoTTF device, approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, has proven as effective as chemotherapy in some cases of glioblastoma multiforme. It also spares the wearer the side effects common to many types of chemotherapy.

The early promise shown in UCI Health patients is consistent with that of more than 450 others around the country, according to data 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, the longest 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 a study author. “We hope to prolong the lives of many patients who have this terrible disease.”

Sirca says more than 30 years in the classroom has helped her cope, noting that children are very resilient.

“They go through so much growing up,” she says. “If they can handle that, then I can handle this.”

She also knows that teaching, like much of life, cannot be summed up by test scores or statistics.

“They say that only 10 percent of people with this survive more than five years,” Sirca says. “But there’s no reason why I can’t be part of that 10 percent.”

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

In the meantime, she continues to knit more caps for Knots of Love, a group of volunteers that makes beanies for chemotherapy patients. 

“I’ve reached my original goal of 3,500 caps,” Sirca says. "Now on to 5,000!"