Nanotech: Cuts like a Nanoknife

A new machine targets tumours without surgery or chemotherapy.

Imagine that instead of needing a liver transplant to halt a cancerous tumour, a machine could zap the rogue cells in less than a minute. That’s the appealing promise of NanoKnife System — a US$300,000 machine designed to eliminate targeted soft tissue with reduced risk of damage to surrounding ducts and tissue. And so far, more than 320 patients have been treated by the machine made by U.S.-based AngioDynamics.

The NanoKnife isn’t a knife at all, but a series of disposable, needle-like electrode probes. The “nano” part of its name comes from nanotechnology — the science of dealing with particles at the atomic level. The NanoKnife’s probes are inserted into the tumor, and a strong electrical force travels between them to make microscopic holes in the cancer cells. When the cells die they are flushed out by the body’s lymphatic system.

Not everyone believes that NanoKnife is a miracle cure. One doctor believes that it works best on tumours less than five centimetres in diameter. Serious blood buildups have been reported in some cases, and the electricity from the knife has been seen to trigger quickened heartbeats. But the real skepticism surrounds what isn’t yet known about the device. The NanoKnife won Food and Drug Administration approval through a shortcut sometimes granted to medical devices, and it has yet to prove itself in controlled clinical trials or demonstrate substantive improvement for patients over the long term.

But for the growing number of patients who have been cancer-free for the past couple of years, cured without chemotherapy or radiation, the NanoKnife has lived up to their hopes, and the hype.