Chemotherapy has been the mainstay of cancer treatment ever since it debuted in the 1940s.

But while the weapon against cancer has been available for decades, its delivery system hasn’t been significantly improved for more than 70 years.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) hope to change that with a device that uses electric fields to guide cancer-fighting agents directly into cancerous tissues.

In a new study published in Science Translational Medicine, researchers explored applying pancreatic and breast cancer treatments with a delivery device that uses a technique called iontophoresis.

Iontophoretic devices can overcome barriers and drive drugs directly into tissues using electric fields.


The devices were designed to either be implanted or used as a transdermal patch on the skin to diffuse the treatment across a larger area.

The devices consist of an electrode with a direct contact to the drug solution, a polymer reservoir around the electrode, and an inlet and outlet for the drug to flow through continuously.

Researchers believe that clinical trials on the devices will begin in 2016.

One major downside of chemotherapy, the cytotoxic agents that are used to treat cancer patients, is that the treatment affects all of the body’s growing cells — including healthy tissue cells. With direct delivery, the side effects of treatment can be reduced.

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New Pancreatic Cancer Treatment Urgently Needed

The device could be a breakthrough in particular for pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer cells are remarkably dense and have presented a challenge for traditional drug delivery methods.

Pancreatic cancer has a 75 percent mortality rate within 1 year of diagnosis, but these devices could change that.

In trials in mice, the devices reduced tumor growth when combined with intravenous treatments. By preventing tumor growth or shrinking tumors, it’s possible more patients will be eligible for surgery to remove tumors.

"Surgery to remove a tumor currently provides the best chance to cure pancreatic cancer," said study co-author Joseph DeSimone, Ph.D., the Chancellor's Eminent Professor of Chemistry at UNC, in a news release. "However, often a diagnosis comes too late for a patient to be eligible for surgery due to the tendency of the tumors to become intertwined with major organs and blood vessels.”

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Researchers tested the devices on three mouse models and one dog model of cancer to test their effectiveness and toxicity.

3D Printed Platinum Gives Devices an Edge

The new devices were constructed by a team led by James Byrne, a member of DeSimone's lab at UNC.

"We hope our invention can be used in humans in the coming years and result in a notable increase in life expectancy and quality among patients diagnosed with pancreatic and other types of cancer," Byrne said in a news release.

At first, the devices were made of silver, but researchers then switched to platinum because it was better for long-term use.

The reservoir of the device could eventually be constructed by 3D printers. That means researchers or doctors could customize the reservoir to the patient and the tumor, a spokeswoman for the university lab said in an email.