HARLINGEN—A new treatment for cancer patients that kills cancer cells with electricity while not harming surrounding healthy tissue was performed for the first time in Texas at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen.
Daniel Fuentes, an interventional radiologist, performed the state’s first NanoKnife procedure, which uses electricity instead of heat or freezing temperatures to destroy cancer cells. Valley Baptist is only the seventh hospital in the nation to offer the new procedure.
The first patient, Joseph Wanja, a 68-year-old Brownsville resident, was recovering and doing well following the minimally invasive procedure at Valley Baptist. He was the fourth lung cancer patient in the United States to benefit from the new technology, and Valley Baptist is the second hospital in the country to perform a lung procedure with the NanoKnife.
“In some cases, this technology is an alternative to surgery,” Fuentes said. “The procedure is done with anesthesia, so the patient doesn’t feel any pain. With many patients, we’re talking about a faster recovery, with less discomfort, and fewer side effects.”
Some patients treated with the NanoKnife require a brief stay in the hospital, while others are able to go home within 24 hours.
“This was a minimally invasive procedure. Dr. Fuentes poked six electrodes into my lung, and I’m ready to go home the next day,” said Wanja, a retired meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Brownsville.
As an interventional radiologist, Fuentes uses ultrasound or computed tomography imaging as a guide while inserting the NanoKnife’s small needle electrodes into areas where cancerous tumors exist. A series of high-voltage electrical pulses are sent through the tumor, with each pulse lasting less than a second.
Fuentes, a graduate of the John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., said the precisely targeted electric pulses may be thought of as “molecular surgery” at the level of the cell.
“All that the electricity does is to create tiny holes in cell membranes, causing the cells to die,” he said.
“Nanotechnology” refers to the technology involved in working on a microscopic level—as small as individual molecules and atoms. So, the “NanoKnife” actually is an electrical field—not a knife—that can be targeted precisely to poke tiny holes in tumor cells, while not affecting adjacent organs.
“With the NanoKnife, we can treat tumors that are next to an intestine, kidney, the urinary system or other critical organs,” Fuentes said.
“One of the great strengths of the NanoKnife is it uses electricity to open little holes in the cell membranes, so every cell in the treatment area dies. But what is really amazing about the NanoKnife is that it doesn’t alter or destroy adjacent tissue. So, after the treatment, adjacent, noncancerous cells migrate in and replace the dead cancer cells. There is evidence that the healthy cells will grow back and regenerate, instead of leaving a hole in the organ. This helps the organ to continue to function.”
Todd Shenkenberg, an oncologist in Harlingen who referred the first NanoKnife patient, said in many cases, the new technology will benefit local patients and families by allowing them to stay in the Rio Grande Valley when they need treatment instead of having to travel to distant cities such as Houston.