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Biomedical foundation supports technology aimed at destroying cancer cells

A new technology, using electric pulses to destroy cancer tissue and named by NASA Tech Briefs as one of seven key technological breakthroughs of 2007, is receiving additional support aimed at moving the procedure to the marketplace.
One of its lead developers, Rafael V. Davalos, a faculty member of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences (SBES), received a $240,000 grant from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and $25,000 from the Wake Forest Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Davalos' grant from Coulter is an Early Career Translational Research Award in Biomedical Engineering. This early career awards program provides funding for assistant professors in established biomedical engineering departments within North America. The award seeks to support biomedical research that Coulter considers promising ­­-- with the goal of progressing toward commercial development.

The technology, irreversible electroporation (IRE), was invented by Davalos and Boris Rubinsky, a bioengineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Electroporation is a phenomenon that increases the permeability of a cell from none to a reversible opening to an irreversible opening. With the latter, the cell will die. For decades, biologists have used reversible electroporation in laboratories to introduce drugs and genes into cells while trying to avoid irreversible electroporation. By contrast, biomedical engineers Davalos and Rubinsky are now using irreversible electroporation to target cancer cells in the body.

Irreversible electroporation would be a minimally invasive surgical focal-ablation technique that could remove the undesirable tissue without the use of heat such as radiation. The irreversible electroporation procedure involves placing small needles near the targeted region. The needles deliver a series of low energy microsecond electric pulses to the targeted tissue and the area treated can be monitored in real time using ultrasound. In laboratory testing, irreversible electroporation destroyed targeted tissue with sub-millimeter resolution, and it proved easy to control and to be precise.

Furthermore, "the procedure spares nerves and major blood vessels, enabling treatment in otherwise inoperable areas," Davalos, the 2006 recipient of the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award for Most Promising Engineer, added.

Davalos and his colleagues published the first experiments on using irreversible electroporation on tumors in the November 2007 issue of PLoS ONE. Their optimal parameters achieved complete regression in 92 percent of the treated tumors in vivo in preclinical mouse models. These results were achieved with a single treatment that lasted less than five minutes. Collaborator Lluis M. Mir, director of the Laboratory of Vectorology and Gene Transfer research of the Institut Gustave Rousssy, the leading cancer research center in Europe, and one of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), led the study.

In April 2008, Gary Onik (, a radiologist with Florida Hospital and Rubinsky conducted a pilot study ( on five people on soft tissue in the prostate to prove the safety of the procedure on humans.

Davalos' collaborators on the Coulter Foundation grant are: Mir; John Robertson, professor of biomedical science; and John Rossmeisl, an assistant professor of small animal clinical services, both of whom are in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and Waldemar Debinski of Wake Forest.

Davalos' Virginia Tech collaborators on the grant from Wake Forest are Robertson and Nichole Rylander, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and also a member of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. Wake Forest researcher Suzy Torti, of its cancer biology department, is also working with the group.

Lynn A. Nystrom | VT News
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