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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Scientists See New Benefits In Bioelectric Cancer Treatments

By Betsy Hnath

May is the month of college graduations, blooming landscapes and melanoma awareness. All three can be found on Old Dominion University's campus.

Melanoma claims nearly 9,500 lives annually, and the number of new patients diagnosed with the disease has increased by 53 percent per year over the last decade.

Those types of statistics drove Stephen Beebe, research professor at Old Dominion's Frank Reidy Center for Bioelectrics, to investigate how pulse technology might help treat melanoma.

Beebe began using nanosecond pulses - short bursts of electricity -- in the medical field by killing bacteria. In the mid-2000s, he set his sights on cancer, starting with melanoma.

"Melanoma is probably one of the most difficult systemic diseases we have to deal with," Beebe said. "There is still an awful lot about it that is challenging."

Beebe, along with other researchers, produced the first major breakthrough by eradicating melanoma tumors in mammals using only pulse technology. A 2007 paper about their project gained national attention.

While Beebe and the team at the Frank Reidy Center were exploring the role of bioelectrics and cancer, melanoma treatment was evolving, too.

After decades of focusing on chemotherapy, which kills only quickly dividing cells, doctors discovered that harnessing the power of a patient's immune system improved the often-grim prognosis for late-stage melanoma. New treatments incorporating that approach, called "immunotherapy," began to surface. They have since branched into nearly every type of cancer.

At about the same time, Richard Heller, professor and eminent scholar, had joined the Frank Reidy Center.

His research before coming to Old Dominion used microsecond pulses in combination with IL-12, an immune-boosting agent, in melanoma patients. He produced some promising results.

"Late-stage melanoma is still very challenging, but back then treatment didn't offer a lot of hope," Heller said. "Several of those in the study are still doing well, and we treated them in 2008."

While investigating the cancer-killing abilities of pulse technology, the ODU team found it had an added benefit: a heightened immune response in the treated area. In other words, a patient's immune cells meant specifically to tackle the tumor got a boost.

Given the new landscape of cancer medicine, the team at the Frank Reidy Center was excited.

"It was a surprise," Beebe said. "When we found that we could kill tumors, we were thrilled. When we saw there was an immune response, people said 'this is a game changer.' "

ODU licensed several patents for pulse-power technology to Pulse Biosciences, based in southern California, resulting in a $42 million gift to the University last year. The company anticipates a fast-tracked approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration and a clinical trial for oncology soon.

"Sometimes you wonder, 'Gee, is cancer smarter than all of us put together?' We're trying to catch up, but it's a tough one," Beebe said. "The good news is the pulses don't care what kind of cancer it is, including melanoma. If the electric fields are high enough, we can kill it in a way that the immune system can find it, identify it, and work from there."

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