Mesothelioma is considered an incurable form of cancer. Only a very small number of mesothelioma patients survive long-term with the disease. So, it’s big news when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announces a new approved mesothelioma treatment.
The newly FDA-approved mesothelioma treatment protocol is a combination of a tumor treating fields device with the chemotherapy drug pemetrexed plus one of the platinum-based chemotherapy drugs. This new mesothelioma treatment option is one of many exciting recent developments in mesothelioma care and in cancer treatment more generally.
What Is a Tumor Treating Fields Device?
The tumor treating fields device (also referred to as TTF or TTFields) approved by the FDA is made by the Israeli firm Novocure. The device is called Optune or NovoTTF-100A. It was previously approved for the treatment of a form of aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma.
TTF sends an electrical current through the area around your tumor. The treatment is also called alternating electric field therapy because it uses alternating electrical fields to target cancer cells. The current generated by the device is low intensity, so you won’t get a shock. The electrical current leaves normal cells unharmed. At the same time, it kills fast-growing cells, like cancer cells, and stops them from growing and dividing.
During treatment, you’ll have electrodes attached to your skin in the area of your tumor. If you have a medical device implanted near the location of your tumor, TTF might not be appropriate for you.
The side effects from TTF treatment appear to be relatively mild. Some patients had skin irritation where the electrodes were attached. There were also reports of aches and twitching muscles.
Patients in the mesothelioma clinical trial who received TTF treatment in combination with pemetrexed and a platinum-based drug showed impressive results. The patients in the trial had a survival rate that was 50% longer than the expected survival rate for patients with advanced mesothelioma who receive chemotherapy without TTF.
Who Will Benefit from the New Mesothelioma Treatment?
TTFields mesothelioma treatment is approved for a specific set of patients: people with malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM) that is unresectable , locally advanced, or metastatic.
Pleural mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium (lining) around the lungs. It is the most common form of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos, most often by inhaling microscopic asbestos fibers.
Before this announcement, there was only one FDA-approved treatment for patients with unresectable, locally advanced, or metastasized mesothelioma: pemetrexed combined with cisplatin, a platinum-based drug.
If you were diagnosed with MPM at an early mesothelioma stage, you have additional treatment options available, including surgery and radiation. Combination treatments, such as surgery with radiation or two chemotherapy drugs together, have been found to be the most effective.
Because mesothelioma can be difficult to detect and diagnose, many patients don’t start receiving treatment until their cancer has moved beyond the early phases. TTF treatment, therefore, has the potential to benefit many mesothelioma patients.
Defining Advanced Mesothelioma
The mesothelioma treatment that uses TTF is for patients whose mesothelioma is unresectable, locally advanced, or metastatic. It’s helpful to define these medical terms to understand if this would be a helpful mesothelioma treatment for your tumor.
Unresectable tumor. Unresectable is doctor-speak for a tumor that can’t be surgically removed. There can be several reasons for this. If your tumor is in a location that can’t be safely operated on, the risks might outweigh the benefits of surgery. Or your tumor could be unresectable because it is not a solid tumor growing in a single location but many tiny and diffuse clumps of cancer cells. Sometimes, doctors can remove part but not all of a tumor through surgery. This also fits the definition of unresectable.
Locally advanced mesothelioma. When a doctor describes your cancer as locally advanced, this means your tumor has spread to nearby organs but not to other parts of your body. In the case of pleural mesothelioma, cancer cells could have spread to one of your lungs or to your spleen.
Metastatic cancer. When cancer metastasizes, it spreads to other parts of your body. Cancer can metastasize to organs that aren’t close to your original tumor. Metastatic cancer cells look the same as the cells of your original tumor. A secondary tumor that forms as the result of metastasis is still called pleural mesothelioma, even when it attacks a different organ.
The new treatment protocol just approved by the FDA is a first-line treatment for MPM patients whose cancer fits one or more of these descriptions.
First-line and Second-line Cancer Treatments
The TTF protocol was approved by the FDA as a first-line treatment for certain patients with MPM. A first-line cancer treatment is one that is most likely to be effective for most patients. First-line treatments for mesothelioma include surgery and chemotherapy. The TTF treatment adds another tool for mesothelioma doctors and patients to battle this deadly form of cancer.
A second-line cancer treatment is one that your doctor might turn to if the first-line treatment stops working. Your doctor might also try a second-line treatment if you can’t tolerate a first-line mesothelioma treatment such as chemotherapy. If first- and second-line treatments stop working, your doctor may try third- or fourth-line treatments as well.
Can I Get TTF Mesothelioma Treatment?
If you are interested in trying TTF mesothelioma treatment, you still have a few hurdles to jump. Optune machines are relatively new and not every treatment center will have one. The Optune device can only be operated by trained personnel, which could be another limiting factor. In addition, you should check with your insurance carrier or Medicare to find out if this treatment is covered.
TTF treatment is not a cure, but it offers new hope for patients with advanced or inoperable mesothelioma. Your doctor will be able to help you understand whether TTF could help treat your mesothelioma. If you meet the criteria for TTF, it could be worthwhile to find a medical center where you can receive this ground-breaking mesothelioma treatment. After a mesothelioma diagnosis, every moment you have with your loved ones is precious. TTF offers the promise of more of those precious moments.