Researchers Use Unexpected Tool in New Cancer Treatments

A team of Duke University bioengineers developed a new ethanol gel that showed 100 percent cure rate in its small experiment. The new type of cancer treatment could save lives of those unable to afford traditional surgeries.

Researchers Use Unexpected Tool in New Cancer Treatments
Ethanol bottle US Naval Academy

A team from Duke University managed to get a 100 percent cure rate when they used an ethanol-based gel and directly injected it into tumors. The researchers treated squamous cell carcinoma found in a hamster model. The gel serves as a twist on pre-existing ethanol ablation techniques. The researchers think that their treatment could greatly improve the effectiveness of such treatments. 

Researchers Use Unexpected Tool in New Cancer Treatments
Source: Morhard et al. Duke University

Ethanol kills several types of tumors by dehydrating cells and killing proteins. The process -- ethanol ablation -- already works pretty well on one type of liver cancer. Treatments are also extremely cheap due to the availability of ethanol; treatments can come down to $5 per treatment. The success rates of current ethanol ablation treatments are equivalent to that of surgery. 

The biggest problem so far with it is that it's limited in what it can treat. 

That's where the team from Duke University comes into play. The team, led by biomedical engineer Robert Morhard, used a blend of ethanol and ethyl cellulose on a small hamster test subject. The mixture transformed into a gel substance, allowing it to stick close to the points of injection which were the tumors themselves.  

The team used the oral cancer squamous cell carcinoma in the hamsters' cheek pouches. It took 22 weeks for the tumors to form. 

The researchers then divided the hamsters into two groups. The control group received pure ethanol injections. After a week, none of the five tumors in the control group had regressed. However, the ethanol gel performed significantly better. After a week with the ethanol gel, six of the seven tumors regressed completely, and by an eighth day, all tumors had disappeared. 

Researchers Use Unexpected Tool in New Cancer Treatments
Source: Morhard et al. Duke University

The research is still proof-of-concept as the team conducted the tests on a small animal with a very small sample size.

The Ultimate Goal

However, the group has pretty big plans for the application of the treatment. Ideally, the team noted in their writings that they would like to see their treatments helping people in low-income countries or areas with limited resources. Cancer treatment anywhere in the world can be incredibly pricey, but for those in developing nations, cancer treatments might not be an option given their high costs. Traditionally, developing nations and remote areas lack the resources necessary for even the most basic healthcare, let alone extensive cancer treatments. The team addressed this in their research paper: 

"Discrepancies in mortality-to-incidence rates are generally attributed to lack of access to basic cancer treatment resources in developing countries.

Science

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The limited access to surgery in developing countries is due to shortages in both equipment and personnel. A survey of 132 district-level facilities in eight low- and middle-income countries found that only 32 percent reported consistent availability of anesthesia machines, and only 36 percent had constant access to electricity. Such shortages are further exacerbated by lack of trained medical personnel; a large majority of sub-Saharan countries do not meet the World Health Organization’s recommendations for numbers of doctors and nurses per capita. Because of these obstacles, nine out of ten people in developing countries do not have access to basic surgical care."

This cheap, simple, and transportable method of treatment doesn't require electricity, surgical tools, or even a lot of clean water. 

"Here [in the paper], we describe development of a low-cost alternative therapy based on intratumoral ethanol injection suitable for resource-limited settings," the team wrote. 

You can read the full report in Nature Scientific Reports.

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