freezing breast cancer

What if we could freeze cancer in its tracks?

Researchers at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine are doing just that in a clinical study currently under way that uses a procedure called cryoablation to freeze breast tumors.

Dr. Rache Simmons, chief of breast surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, and professor of Surgical Oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine, is leading the trial.

While early stage breast cancers are traditionally treated with a combination of radiation and surgery, Simmons says cryoablation is a breakthrough noninvasive treatment option for appropriate patients.

“Patients don't need to have a surgical procedure to treat their breast cancer,” Simmons told Healthline. “The ablation takes about 20 minutes in the office. There is no need for anesthesia — just a bit of numbing medicine to insert the probe into the breast. There is also no incision.”

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A matter of nitrogen

Cryoablation has been used for years to treat liver, lung, and kidney cancers, as well as noncancerous breast tumors, called fibroadenomas.

Simmons’ trial is the first time the procedure’s effects on the treatment of early stage breast cancer are being studied.

“The patients that are considered candidates for this procedure would be age 65 or older with small (1.5 centimeters or less) cancers where the cell type is not aggressive. They also need to have no evidence of spread to the lymph nodes,” says Simmons.

During the outpatient procedure, doctors use ultrasound imaging to aid in inserting a needlelike device into the tumor. The device then releases liquid nitrogen into the tumor, freezing and destroying the cancerous tissue.

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A hopeful future

Simmons’ phase II, nonrandomized trial included 86 participants with 87 types of cancer, seeking treatment at 19 centers throughout the United States.

Cryoablation was used to treat 92 percent of the targeted cancers successfully and 100 percent of the cancers that were less than 1 centimeter in size.

After cryoablation was performed, the primary tumor was removed within 28 days.

Simmons says cryoablation can be a form of treatment for women who meet the criteria, even those whose cancer is caused by BRCA gene mutations.

She also believes “These criteria will probably be expanded as we show success in the group above.”

Other breast specialists are hopeful too. They believe the procedure could change the landscape of treatment.

“If the data from the trial shows that cryoablation is safe and successful in treating early breast cancers with recurrence rates equivalent to lumpectomy, it would likely change management of early cancers,” Dr. Allyson F. Jacobson, medical director of NCH Breast Program at Northwest Community Healthcare Medical Group in Illinois, told Healthline. “It would at least give patients more options. But that remains to be determined.”

Still, Simmons notes that the technique should only be performed as part of a clinical trial at this time and only by breast surgeons highly skilled in breast ultrasound are qualified to perform cryoablation.

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