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Microwave Tumors

September 1, 2000

Missile detection technology may provide the future treatment of choice for breast cancer. Alan J. Fenn of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory developed the system as a phased-array radar antenna to foil enemy jamming. Searching for other applications when military funding dried up, Fenn stumbled onto the possibility of using his creation’s precisely controlled emissions of microwave energy to treat cancer. Earlier attempts to use microwaves to kill cancer cells failed because of the difficulty in focusing the energy to destroy deep-seated tumors without burning surrounding tissue. Fenn’s anti-jamming algorithm precisely shapes the microwave beam to do just that. After giving patients a local anesthetic, doctors insert two needle probes into the tumor to measure temperature and microwave energy levels. They then heat the tumor to about 45 C for 20 minutes. Patients can go home with a couple of Band-Aids.

In early trials, a single microwave treatment shrunk tumors by half within 10 days-a result that requires months of chemotherapy or radiation. Celsion, of Columbia, Md., has licensed the technology and hopes to adapt it to treat tumors in the prostate, lung, liver and pancreas as well.

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