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Africa to benefit from cheaper cancer treatment option, says US based oncologist

By Ebele Orakpo
To many, cancer connotes death. This is  because as far as they are concerned, a large percentage of those diagnosed with various forms of cancers succumb to death eventually after a most gruelling experience characterised by pains and terrible side effects from drugs, radiotherapy and surgery.

Dr. Obinna Nwaneri, a US-based Nigerian oncologist/haematologist had told Vanguard in a chat that medical science has not been able to discover what causes cancer but there are predisposing factors. He, however, advises that people should be vigilant to be able to detect early signs because the earlier it is detected, the higher the chances of successful treatment and patient survival.

However, the cost of treating cancer which affects different parts of the human body  is prohibitive and not many people in Sub-Saharan Africa can afford it.

It was, therefore, a great news when a Nigerian-born clinical engineer resident in South Africa, Mr. Timothy Okhai began a research into developing a cost-effective device for cryotherapy, a treatment method for cancer which uses liquid nitrogen to freeze and kill abnormal tissues.

According to Okhai, the cost of a cryotherapy unit ranges upwards from $190,000 with each multi-use probe costing about $3,750 and these are way out of reach of most average hospitals in Africa and so he felt the need to develop something locally that would be affordable and more widely available.

Mode of operation: Says Mr. Okhai: “Cryotherapy is a method of treatment that involves destroying abnormaistl tissue by freezing. After numbing the tissue around the mass, a cryoprobe which is shaped like a large needle, is inserted into the middle of the lesion. An ice ball forms at the tip of the probe and continues to grow until the images confirm that the entire tumour has been engulfed, killing the tissue.”

Speaking on the advantages of this treatment method, he said “cryotherapy is a minimally invasive procedure that is easy to perform and usually completed within half an hour to two hours. It can usually be done in the doctor’s office without general anaesthesia, and the patient can go home same day and return to work the next day.

Renal cryosurgery patients are released from hospital as early as a day after the procedure, followed by only a few days of recovery time at home. Many patients are unwilling or unable to undergo surgery or radiation, and for such patients, a procedure like cryotherapy is a viable and effective treatment option.”

Continuing, he said: “The beauty of thermal ablation therapy is the ability to treat a tumour with a defined volume in sites where surgery itself is difficult eg, the liver or where organ preservation is needed or desired eg. prostate or uterus,” adding that patients with other health problems who are not candidates for conventional treatment might be eligible for this technique.

He stated that cryotherapy is very effective for treatment of small tumours and that using interventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in combination with freezing and heating procedures has numerous advantages over conventional surgical procedures, the most obvious being that the surgeon can instantly detect whether all of a cancerous growth is being destroyed.

Because of the added precision of using the interventional MRI, this has made it possible to reduce the pain, the risk, healing time, complications, cost and surrounding tissue damage.

“Treatment tools in form of miniature probes are usually inserted through a small nick in the skin and guided to the treatment site to perform a variety of treatments that could only be performed previously with more invasive open surgical procedures. After the treatment, there are almost no visible surgical incisions, no stitches and no scars,” he said.

For tumours not detected early, he said “though cryotherapy and other thermo-ablative procedures are generally most effective for small tumours that have not spread, however, with combination therapy, this procedure can be used in combination with radiotherapy or chemotherapy to enhance the effectiveness in such cases.

In  some instances where surgical resection is not possible or too dangerous eg in liver cancer, or where the patient has been told that there is no hope, some researchers have reported success with cryotherapy.”

The clinical engineer  noted that though the cryoprobe is still under test, this economic probe will drastically reduce the cost and bring the use of cryotherapy closer to the doorsteps of patients and physicians in Africa.


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