Jim Ketter, a former physics instructor at Oregon State University is among the first in the Willamette Valley to receive a new treatment for glioblastoma, the most common type of brain tumor in adults. Jim was diagnosed with this aggressive form of cancer last fall.
“I was literally running into things. I would open a door to walk through it and I would run into the door frame,” Jim said. “Pretty soon, I started having trouble doing Sudoku puzzles and typing on a keyboard. Then the headaches started.”
“It was not good news,” Jim’s wife, Anne, said. “It was kind of like getting hit by a truck. And it all happened so quickly.”
With Ann by his side, Jim underwent surgery and radiation therapy, and now, in addition to receiving chemotherapy, he wears a cap-like device called Optune.
How does Optune work?
Optune uses four adhesive patches, called transducer arrays, to deliver therapy. They are applied to Jim’s scalp and connected to the device and a battery that Jim carries in a small backpack. Optune creates low-intensity, electrical fields called TTFields.
“These fields are not radiation. They are electrical and very low dose, but there needs to be an alternating current. And what that does is prevent cells that are growing rapidly from growing,” said Dr. Emily Dunn, a radiation oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute.
MRI is used to determine the placement of the transducer array on Jim’s head to maximize the effect that the TTFields have on his tumor.
Optune is FDA-approved to be used in conjunction with the chemotherapy temozolomide (TMZ) in patients with newly diagnosed glioblastoma who have undergone surgery and radiation. Because cancer cells divide often and normal cells in the adult brain do not, this technology helps hinder tumor growth.
“And there has been pretty good phase-three clinical evidence that suggests this is a good option for patients who can tolerate it — and it gives them a little bit more time,” Dr. Dunn said.
For Optune to work effectively, patients must wear the device for 18 hours a day and shave their heads every few days so that the transducer arrays maintain close contact with the scalp.
“Once it’s on, I almost never notice it. It’s like wearing clothing; you put on a shirt, you never feel it anymore,” Jim said.
Side effects of Optune when used together with chemotherapy may include nausea, possible blood count issues, weakness, fatigue and skin irritation from the electrodes.
Jim says aside from feeling fatigued, he hasn’t experienced any adverse effects. He feels some occasional warmth while wearing the device, and the portable battery pack allows him to remain active. He even remodeled his kitchen recently.
Optune is not a cure for glioblastoma, but it may offer patients more time to enjoy life. The latest clinical study found the median survival rate was 21 months for patients given Optune plus chemotherapy vs. 16 months for those on chemo alone. Survival rates were 43 percent vs. 31 percent at two years; 26 percent vs. 16 percent at three years; and 13 percent vs. 5 percent at five years.
The Optune technology is showing such promise with brain tumors that it is now being studied on other types of cancer, including pancreatic and lung cancer.
Since starting Optune approximately six months ago, tests show Jim’s tumor has shrunk.
“It’s actually gotten smaller, and that’s really cool. That’s very exciting for us,” Jim said.
And those results give him and Anne hope for the future.
“Here we are today, but in three months or six months, they may come up with something that’s even better,” Anne said. “So, I think it’s very exciting and very promising.”