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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Houston VA Hospital Using Innovative Technique to Treat Liver Cancer and Tumors

December 15, 2005

Houston VA Hospital Using Innovative Technique to Treat Liver Cancer and Tumors
New Treatment May Give Many Patients Second Chance at Life


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Physicians at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center have begun using an innovative surgical technique called Radiofrequency Catheter Ablation to treat liver cancer and tumors. From left: Kyle Belek, M.D., Tulane University intern; Jaime Roman, M.D., chief resident of the MEDVAMC Bronze Team; Daniel Albo, M.D., Ph.D., MEDVAMC chief of General Surgery and Surgical Oncology; and Jeffrey Gahan, Baylor College of Medicine medical student. Photo by: Marcia Peltier, PA-C, Operative Care Line


HOUSTON  - The Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center (MEDVAMC) is among the first VA hospitals in the country to use Radiofrequency Catheter Ablation (RFA) to treat liver cancer and tumors. According to the American Cancer Society, about 14,000 cases of primary liver cancer are diagnosed each year.

Cancer in the liver usually is not detected until it reaches an advanced stage, and most liver cancers cannot be treated with surgery. This is because the tumor may be too large or has grown into blood vessels or other vital structures. Sometimes, many small tumors are spread throughout the liver, making surgery too risky or impractical. In fact, surgical removal is not possible for more than two-thirds of primary liver cancer patients and 90 percent of patients with secondary liver cancer.

Until recently, chemotherapy and systemic treatment was the only option for patients with inoperable liver cancer. Unfortunately, these types of treatments usually cannot be given in doses high enough to control most liver cancers because of their toxic effects, many of which are life-threatening. RFA may be the only local treatment option for many cancers that cannot be surgically removed. Because it does not have the bad side effects of other options, RFA can be performed without affecting the patient’s overall health or quality of life. Although RFA is not considered a cure for liver cancer, preliminary research has shown that it can prolong and improve the quality of life.

“The RFA procedure is extremely promising because it provides another option to treat veterans with even the most challenging clinical cases,” said Daniel Albo, M.D., Ph.D., chief of General Surgery and Surgical Oncology at the MEDVAMC.

RFA treats disease with heat, a technique preferred by many cancer experts because it can reliably destroy a small, targeted area of tissue without affecting healthy structures beyond the treatment site. With RFA, the doctor can pinpoint target areas with accuracy and monitor and control the temperature of heat therapy.

In RFA, energy is delivered through a metal tube or probe inserted into tumors or other tissues. When the probe is in place, metal prongs pop open to extend the reach of the therapy. RF energy causes atoms in the cells to vibrate and create friction. This generates heat and leads to the death of the cancerous cells.  Radiofrequency energy is safer than many cancer therapies because it is absorbed by living tissues as simple heat. Regardless of the heat source, cells will die when they reach a certain temperature, but RF energy and the heat it generates does not alter the basic chemical structure of cells.

“RFA has many advantages for our patients. It is less risky and has fewer complications compared to surgery and many procedures can be performed without general anesthesia.  Most patients can resume normal activities within a few days and the procedure may be combined with other treatment options.  It can also relieve pain and suffering for many cancer patients,” said Albo.