Alternating Electric Field Therapy for Adult Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors

Researchers have found that exposing some types of tumor cells to alternating electric fields (also known as tumor treating fields) can interfere with the cells’ ability to grow and spread. A portable device that generates such electric fields, known as Optune, is now an option to help treat some people with glioblastomas:  

  • It can be used in people with newly diagnosed glioblastoma after treatment with surgery and radiation therapy. The device is used along with chemotherapy. It may help people live longer than if they just get chemotherapy alone.
  • It can also be used (instead of chemotherapy) in people whose glioblastoma has come back after initial treatment. It hasn’t been shown to help people live longer than chemotherapy in this situation, but it tends to have much milder side effects.

How is it done?

The head is shaved, and 4 sets of electrodes are placed on the scalp. The electrodes are attached to a battery pack (kept in a backpack) and are worn for most of the day. They generate mild electric currents that are thought to affect tumor cells in the brain more than normal cells.

Possible side effects

Side effects of the device tend to be minor, and can include skin irritation at the electrode sites, trouble sleeping, mood changes, and a slightly increased risk of headaches and seizures.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Chang SM, Mehta MP, Vogelbaum MA, Taylor MD, Ahluwalia MS. Chapter 97: Neoplasms of the central nervous system. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Central Nervous System Cancers. V.1.2017. Accessed at on September 14, 2017.

Stupp R, Taillibert S, Kanner A, et al. Effect of tumor-treating fields plus maintenance temozolomide vs maintenance temozolomide alone on survival in patients with glioblastoma: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2017;318:2306-2316.

Stupp R, Wong ET, Kanner AA, et al. NovoTTF-100A versus physician's choice chemotherapy in recurrent glioblastoma: A randomised phase III trial of a novel treatment modality. Eur J Cancer. 2012;48(14):2192-202.

Last Medical Review: September 30, 2017 Last Revised: November 8, 2017

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