A patch-like device placed on the skull has extended the lives of patients with a lethal form of brain cancer, according to new data. 

Developed by Novocure, Optune consists of four connected patches worn on the scalp and emits low-energy, alternating electric fields called Tumour Treating Fields (TTFs) which prevent cancer cells from dividing properly.

Originally given the go-ahead by the FDA for the treatment of recurrent glioblastoma in 2011, new data from a study in the US and abroad involving 695 adult patients showed the device to increase median survival to around 21 months when combined with the chemotherapy drug temozolomide – five months longer than in the group of patients who received chemotherapy alone.

Interim results for the first 315 patients that enrolled in the study led to an independent safety and monitoring committee to recommend the early halting of the trial, giving patients the opportunity to have the device as part of their treatment if they so wished.

Two-year survival for those patients using the device was 43% compared to 31% for those on chemotherapy alone. Five-year survival was also higher in the Optune group at 13% versus 5%.

“This innovative regional treatment modality that can – due to the absence of overlapping toxicity – easily be combined with standard chemotherapy holds promise as a regional tumour treatment modality in other solid tumours,” write the authors of the study.

Along its use in glioblastoma, Novocure is also testing Optune in the ovarian cancer setting as part of its INNOVATE clinical trial. In phase 2, Optune was found to be both tolerable and safe in patients with recurrent ovarian cancer when used alongside weekly paclitaxel chemotherapy.

Despite the relatively little improvement in survival, glioblastoma’s low survival rates make the improvement significant enough for it to be praised by experts present at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting where the data was displayed.

George Demetri, a member of the committee that accepted Optune’s abstract, described the improvement as “modest” yet was “in favour of any incremental benefit.”

Current five-year survival for glioblastoma patients in the US stands at 17%, 6% and 4% in adults aged 20-44, 45-54 and 55-64 respectively.