St. Luke’s surgeons first in state to use innovative pancreatic cancer treatment

Procedure uses thin needles and short electrical pulses to punch holes in tumors

Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center at South 27th Street and West Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee.

This month, surgeons at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center became the first in the state to perform an innovative procedure that uses short electrical pulses to treat inoperable pancreatic and liver cancers.

Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center at South 27th Street and West Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee.
Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center at South 27th Street and West Oklahoma Avenue in Milwaukee.

The procedure, called Nanoknife Irreversible Electroporation, involves placing thin needles around a tumor inside a patient’s body and running short pulses of electrical current through them.

The electrical pulses, which last only a millisecond, punch holes in tumor cells and cause them to swell and die while preserving nearby ducts and blood vessels. Once the tumor cells are dead, the body naturally gets rid of them on its own.

In 2015, a study published in a peer-reviewed medical journal called the Annals of Surgery published a study titled “Treatment of 200 Locally Advanced (Stage III) Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma Patients With Irreversible Electroporation, Safety and Efficacy” concluded the procedure doubled the survival rate of patients with pancreatic cancers.

“IRE results in substantially prolonged survival of patients with (locally advanced pancreatic cancer) compared with historical controls,” the study’s authors wrote.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer. The five-year survival rate in the United States for people with the disease is only 8 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. For those with cancers localized to the pancreas, the survival outlook after five years is slightly better, but still low — 29 percent.

Tumors that cannot be removed through surgery, which Aurora officials described as “virtually incurable with traditional therapies” would be candidates for treatment using the Nanoknife procedure.

“The new Nanoknife technology will be a tremendous asset to our team as we care for patients with traditionally inoperable liver and pancreatic tumors, bringing hope for these patients during challenging times,” said Dr. Aaron Chevinsky, director of surgical oncology at Aurora Cancer Care.

The procedure was first introduced more than a decade ago at several cancer centers around the country, including the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida; The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio; and the Memorial Sloan Cancer Center in New York.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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