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Painless Procedure: Tiny Ice Ball Kills Tumors in Minutes

A medical breakthrough now allows doctors to freeze early-stage breast tumors – with no surgery, no scarring, no general anesthetic and no tissue removal.

The entire procedure can take as little as 40 minutes. Patients can go straight home after its done, and are spared the painful recovery process.

The idea of using an extremely cold liquid to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue – or cryoablation – isn’t new. Doctors have been doing it in hospitals for the last 30 years.

But IceCure Medical, an Israeli startup, has developed technology that allows physicians to perform the procedure at their own office, with no need for hospitalization.

The breakthrough is the use of liquid nitrogen instead of a mixture of argon and helium gasses. Liquid nitrogen is cheaper, it can be frozen faster, and is easier to maintain at sub-zero temperatures, shortening the treatment time.

“We are offering a minimally-invasive solution for patients who cannot go through surgery or do not want to,” says Tlalit Bussi Tel-Tzure, VP of Business Development and Global Marketing at the company, based in Caesarea, central Israel.

Doctors insert a small probe, or needle, into the tumor, freezing it at sub-zero temperatures (-170°C) without harming the surrounding healthy tissue. When the tissue thaws, the cells die and are absorbed by the body.

The whole procedure is guided with ultrasound or CT imaging, so the doctor can monitor what is going on inside the body as they create an ice ball around the targeted tissue. The patient is either fully awake or lightly sedated through the entire treatment. The ice ball has an analgesic effect, providing additional numbing and pain relief to the treated area.

Not every cancer patient can undergo surgery to remove a tumor, says Bussi Tel-Tzure, because they are at a high risk due to other illnesses and medical conditions, or because they cannot receive a general anesthetic.

And surgery, particularly breast cancer removal, usually needs to be followed up by reconstructive plastic surgery, which can be expensive, and requires additional recovery time. 

Many breast cancer survivors go on to experience negative body image – feeling unhappy with their appearance, feeling less feminine and attractive, and feeling self-conscious with the surgical scars.

“Sometimes patients after breast cryoablation treatment complain to us that after a procedure they go home and still have to prepare dinner for their kids because they get no time off,” jokes Bussi Tel Tzure. “You resume full activity almost immediately.”

The old technology for cryoablation uses gasses in huge, highly-pressurized gas canisters that can be dangerous if handled improperly.

As such, the procedure cannot be done in a clinic or doctor’s office, and must be performed in a hospital. Some European countries don’t allow the patients to be in the same room as the gas canisters because of the safety risk. 

“You need to build a special pipeline to deliver that to the separate room where the patient is,” says Bussi Tel-Tzure, which makes it much more complicated and costly to use. 

Because IceCure uses liquid nitrogen, it doesn’t need to be stored in big cylinders. It can be frozen faster than the gasses, which cuts down the treatment time.

It is also easier to reduce and maintain the temperature with liquid nitrogen. She explains that for a 3cm kidney tumor, IceCure only needs a single needle to create an ice ball that will encase the tumor. For the standard gasses, you need three needles to create an ice ball of the same size. 

“If you use multiple needles, it takes more time to plan the procedure, to navigate the probes, and to manipulate the ice ball that will cover the tumor. So using liquid nitrogen is faster, easier, and saves time and money.”

The treatment can be used for breast, lung, renal (kidney), and liver cancers, metastatic tumors, and musculoskeletal tumors. 

It can also be used for additional applications like neurology and gynecology. “But we focus on the use cases that we think will be of the most value,” she says. 

IceCure’s ProSense system is distributed across Europe, Asia, and Australia. And in the US, it sells directly to sites like private clinics, hospitals, and ambulatory centers. 

IceCure is currently creating a next-generation device to freeze multiple tumors at the same time.

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