Surgery may soon be a thing of the past for breast cancer patients, thanks to a new technique that destroys tumours by freezing them.
A supercooled needle tip is repeatedly inserted into the cancerous tissue to turn it into a ball of ice, before it is then defrosted, leaving the tumour damaged. Not requiring anaesthetic, the technique can be completed in about 15 minutes and could provide a better alternative to the current method of surgery, which requires women to stay in hospital for up to a week and can leave scars.
Thirty breast cancer patients are currently trialling the system, which uses a needle cooled to -170C (-274F) by pumping liquid nitrogen through a network of tiny tubes.
The surgeon can control the size of the ice ball produced to ensure it freezes the entire tumour in a procedure known as cryoablation.
Scientists from the Israel-based company IceCure Medical, which developed the device, say it could be used on cancerous masses up to the size of a golf ball. 'There have been attempts before to use heat to destroy cancer cells like this, but that can be extremely painful because our bodies are very sensitive to heat,' chief executive Hezi Himmelfarb told The Sunday Telegraph. 'Cold has an anaesthetising effect, so the patients feel very little pain during or after the procedure. 'We have developed the system so it can be carried out in a normal doctors' surgery as it is minimally invasive and relatively quick.'
The device could help some of the 50,000 women annually diagnosed in the UK with breast cancer.
Each year, around 39,000 lumpectomies are carried out, which involves the surgical removal of a lump from the breast.
One in five women need further surgery after a lumpectomy, because not all the cancerous tissue is removed.
The device has already been approved for use in the United States and IceCure is hopeful of getting European approval next year.
Scientists believe cryoablation could also be used to treat kidney, prostate and liver cancer.