BREAST cancers can be killed off by being frozen with streams of super-cold gas, scientists have discovered.
And, in a major breakthrough, the â€œice-ballâ€ created around a tumour by the injections not only kills it off but ensures the cancer does not return.
Fine needles are used to inject the freezing gas around the tumour in a technique known as cryotherapy, which means the patient does not need invasive surgery and suffers no major discomfort.
The trial was carried out on 13 patients who had all refused to have breast operations to remove their tumours. They remained cancer-free up to five years later when doctors saw no sign of the disease returning and noted no significant complications.
Dr Peter Littrup, interventional radiologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, who led the study, said the findings suggested freezing tumours was both safe and effective.
â€œMinimally invasive cryotherapy opens the door for a potential new treatment for breast cancer and needs to be further tested,â€ he said. â€œWhen used for local control and â€“ or â€“ potential cure of breast cancer, it provided safe and effective breast conservation.â€ Although cryotherapy has been used by surgeons for years to treat disease, it always used to require a major operation.
But the invention of tiny needles has allowed radiologists to start using the process. Studies have already shown that it can help kill off prostate tumours, although it is still not recommended for widespread NHS use.
In the latest experiment, cancer cells are destroyed within minutes of the injections and the patient suffers little pain or scarring. The study was presented at the Society of Interventional Radiologyâ€™s 35th Annual Scientific Meeting in Florida yesterday.
The team followed the 13 patients for five years â€“ the length of time in which patients should not suffer a relapse in order for a treatment to be classed as effective. More than 45,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK. Most are given surgery to remove either the tumour or the entire breast.
This is followed by weeks of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and various drug treatments depending on the type of breast cancer. More than 80 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive for at least five years using these treatments and more than 70 per cent will survive for a decade.
In recent years, radiologists have been looking at a number of new ways in which they can â€œinterveneâ€ in diseases using a range of procedures.
These doctors, known as interventional radiologists, have tested techniques including â€œheatingâ€ tumours with lasers and radiation. Last night, breast cancer charities welcomed the new study, but said it was far too early to say if the technique would ever be available to all patients.
Dr Caitlin Palframan, from Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: â€œWe are a long way away from knowing whether cryotherapy has potential as a treatment option. Where appropriate, surgery remains a gold-standard treatment and surgical techniques continue to improve all the time.â€
But surgery can have a profound psychological impact on patients, and some refuse it despite the consequent risks. Cryotherapy has been used for years to treat various skin conditions such as warts, moles and skin cancers. It has also been shown to work on other cancers, including cancer of the lung, liver and cervix.
Although it is only minimally invasive there are side-effects and these can include damage to surrounding healthy tissue.