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Tiny oxygen generators improve cancer treatments

Researchers at Purdue are implanting miniature devices in tumors to generate oxygen and boost the effects of both radiation and chemotherapy.

The device can generate oxygen in tumors to improve the effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Purdue University, Birck Nanotechnology Center

Radiation therapy requires oxygen to be effective, which makes cancers that tend to be hypoxic (meaning they are deprived of oxygen)--such as pancreatic and cervical cancers--harder to treat. (Tumors can become hypoxic for a few reasons, e.g. they grow so quickly they actually outgrow blood supply, or cells proliferate so many times that the density taxes the available oxygen.)

So researchers at Purdue have been building and testing tiny devices that can be implanted in tumors and then generate oxygen, thereby making the area far more susceptible to radiation and chemotherapy.

The device (right) fits inside a tube (left) that can then be inserted into a tumor with a biopsy needle. Purdue University,Birck Nanotechnology Center

"Most of us have been touched by cancer in one way or another; my father is a cancer survivor, and he went through many rounds of very painful chemotherapy," said Babak Ziaie, a professor of electrical, computer, and biomedical engineering, in a news release. "This is a new technology that has the potential to improve the effectiveness of such a therapy."

The team's new device, which is called an implantable micro oxygen generator, is implanted into a tumor with a biopsy needle. It then uses energy from ultrasound signals to generate a low voltage that separates oxygen and hydrogen from water--a chemical procedure called water electrolysis.

Simple ultrasound, then, powers the device that generates oxygen and makes the regions more responsive to treatment.

Researchers at Purdue's Birck Nanotechnology Center are also working with Song-Chu Ko, an assistant professor of clinical radiation oncology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. They report on their findings this month in Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.

The team has already filed a patent application, and hopes to improve the design of the device for the next step: clinical trials.