Research Assistant Katrina Briggs places a dish containing cancer cells in a laboratory machine at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where progress is being made toward a new cancer treatment thanks to an Erie man’s idea about radio waves. In photo at top, Briggs prepares cancer cells by placing them in a centrifuge. (ROB ENGELHARDT/Erie Times-News)
HOUSTON -- It's Katrina Briggs' job to discover if John Kanzius has found a new way to treat cancer.
Deep in the basement of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, in a lab not much bigger than a bedroom, Briggs blasts cancer cells with the Millcreek Township inventor's radio-frequency generator.
You can stand right outside the lab and have no idea what is happening. The walls are cinderblock and the only window is covered with black fabric.
"It's the only place where the radio waves won't interfere with other research projects," said Briggs, who has worked for 14 years as a research assistant on different projects. "The floor is 30 feet thick, so nothing vibrates."
Research that has grabbed the attention of 60 Minutes and other national news organizations takes place in a dungeon in Houston, and a similar lab at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Using radio waves to treat cancer isn't new. Surgeons have burned tumors with radio waves for years.
But targeting individual cancer cells with tiny pieces of metal and burning them with radio waves emitted from outside the body -- that is new, said Steven Curley, M.D., principal investigator for the Kanzius project at M.D. Anderson.
"It's the most exciting thing in which I have ever been involved," said Curley, who has written articles for more than 110 publications in his career.
The wrong floor
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How did a project that began in Kanzius' winter home in Sanibel, Fla., end up at a world-class cancer institute?
It started when Kanzius, 64, stepped on an elevator and got off on the wrong floor.
Kanzius -- who has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, an incurable type of cancer -- was between physician appointments at M.D. Anderson in 2003 when he stepped into the hospital's main elevator and mistakenly got out on the pediatric floor.
"I saw all these kids, some of them with bald heads and holding IV stands," Kanzius said. "They were going through the same type of thing I was. That's when I knew there needed to be a different way."
Kanzius is not a medical expert. He doesn't even have a bachelor's degree.
But he was a radio engineer before he became a radio and television station president and co-owner. He knew radio waves could heat metal, and that cancer cells are more vulnerable to heat than healthy cells.
So Kanzius went home to Sanibel and began tinkering with pie pans, copper wiring and other materials.
"What if we could get the metal into the cancer cells, then hit them with radio waves?" Kanzius asked. "They would heat the metal, but not the rest of the body."
Heating hot dogs
Kanzius met Curley in 2005. By then he was using his homemade RF generator to quickly heat hot dogs until they burst.
He showed the device to Michael Keating, his leukemia physician at M.D. Anderson.
Keating suggested that Kanzius talk with Curley, who had been using radio waves to kill tumors in some patients. Because Curley had to physically insert needles into tumors to deliver the radio waves, it only worked with certain types of tumors at particular sites.
Curley and Kanzius talked and exchanged e-mails. The surgeon/researcher was intrigued with Kanzius' idea, but said it wasn't much of an improvement over the technique Curley already used.
"I asked John if he could build a device that would do it noninvasively, without using the needles," Curley said. "I thought that would get rid of him. A month later he called and said he had done it. He had called my bluff."
The premise was surprisingly simple: combine nanotubes -- microscopic pieces of gold or carbon that Kanzius had read about -- with antibodies or other agents that target cancer cells, and inject them into a cancer patient.
A patient would then be placed into Kanzius' device, which emits high-powered radio waves. The waves heat the nanotubes and destroy the cancer cells, but leave healthy cells unharmed.
(Chris Simund / Erie Times-News)
The key was finding out whether radio waves would heat nanotubes, the tiny pieces of metal that could fit inside a cancer cell.
Curley discussed Kanzius' device with Rick Smalley, Ph.D., a Rice University scientist who had won the Nobel Prize for his work with nanoparticles. Like Kanzius, Smalley had been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and was seriously ill.
"I had an argument with Rick in his hospital room," Curley said. "He looked at me and said it wasn't going to work, but I'll give you some (nanoparticles). It was like, 'Go away son, you're bothering me.'"
Curley took the nanoparticles to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in August 2005, where he met Kanzius.
They blasted a small amount of nanoparticles with Kanzius' device and watched in amazement as they quickly heated to about 660 degrees -- more than hot enough to destroy cancer cells.
"It was so hot that the nanoparticles came out of solution," Curley said. "I called Smalley with the news and his answer was, 'Holy ____!'"
It was the "eureka" moment that cancer researchers wait a lifetime to discover, Curley said. Plans were made to test the device at M.D. Anderson and UPMC.
Working in different labs
(Chris Simund / Erie Times-News)
Today, an eight-person research team at M.D. Anderson investigates Kanzius' theory in three different labs.
The basement lab is where researchers blast cancer cells with radio waves and view the results on a state-of-the-art microscope that was paid for by donations from Erie and Sanibel.
They must share space in two upstairs labs with other M.D. Anderson researchers. In those cramped quarters, they grow cells of 20 different types of cancer -- from liver cancer to leukemia -- harvest them and prepare them for Kanzius' device.
"These cells are like baby birds," Briggs said as she placed a deviled-egg tray of leukemia cells into an incubator. "You really have to take care of them. If you don't feed them the right way, they die."
The researchers often work alone, though they are under the supervision of Curley and fellow researcher Paul Cherikuri, Ph.D.
"We adjust our schedules because we often need the same equipment," Briggs said. "The others often are here in the evening."
The pace of progress has been astonishing, Curley said.
They have only been working on Kanzius' devices for a little more than two years, but already have been able to kill cancer cells in human tumors grown in live rabbits without harming the animals.
"There was a fair amount of whooping and hollering in the office that day," Curley said.
Targeting is the key
Now the efforts are focused on targeting, sending nanotubes inside cancer cells and not other, healthy cells.
Curley is reluctant to talk about the progress he and his team are having. He has submitted results to a major medical journal and is under an embargo until it is published.
"I can't jeopardize that," Curley said. "A colleague of mine at another institution talked about his project with a local television station and the journal sent back his paper without publishing it. It put their project way behind. We can't afford that."
But asked how the work is going overall, Curley said there have been "no major glitches" and that "I fully believe this will get to human trials."
Fatigue faded away
But human trials are years away and work continues at M.D. Anderson.
Kanzius was in Houston in late February to see Keating, his leukemia doctor. He wasn't feeling particularly good.
Chemotherapy and a recent viral infection had stolen 10 pounds from his already slender frame.
He barely slept the previous night, then took an early morning flight from Sanibel to M.D. Anderson.
"It's the last time I do that," Kanzius said.
Kanzius then underwent bone-marrow aspiration -- a painful procedure where doctors stick a long needle into his pelvis, and remove blood and small pieces of bone. It was done to see how Kanzius responded to chemotherapy.
Instead of grabbing some sleep, Kanzius and his wife, Marianne, rode an elevator to the hospital's basement to see the devices -- his devices.
As a television crew filmed footage for an upcoming story on 60 Minutes, Kanzius slipped on a pair of reading glasses and examined one of his devices with Curley.
The fatigue faded away, at least for the moment, as Kanzius fiddled with dials and peppered Curley and Briggs with questions about how the device had been operating.
He then watched video of cancer cells rupturing when treated with his device.
"I find it humbling, that this institute and Dr. Curley have endorsed this program, and find it amazing what they have accomplished in such a short time," Kanzius said. "Just watching the cell cultures here today, I just get goose bumps from watching it. I can't see it enough times. Every time it excites me."
DAVID BRUCE can be reached at 870-1736 or by e-mail.
A look at how nanotubes may work in cancer fight
HOUSTON -- A 3-foot mesh cylinder sat in a corner of Boris Yakobson's untidy office at Rice University.
"Aha!" said Yakobson, 53, a professor of chemistry and materials science at Rice. "That is a model of a nanotube. Of course, the real ones are much, much smaller."
Yakobson studies nanotubes at Rice and has written research papers about them. Nanotubes play a vital role in John Kanzius' experimental method of treating cancer.
These tiny pieces of carbon or gold, so small that tens of thousands of them can fit across a human hair, are placed inside cancer cells, then heated by Kanzius' radio-frequency generator.
The heat destroys cells with nanotubes, while cells without them are unaffected.
"This is just one use for nanotubes," Yakobson said. "Carbon nanotubes are among the hardest substances we know, so the possibilities are many."
Nanotubes, first discovered in Japan in 1991, are hex-agonally shaped arrangements of carbon or gold formed into tubes.
They used to be expensive to manufacture, about $1,000 per gram, but new technology has cut the cost to about $10 a gram, depending on the type.
"There is a lot of work going on right now with nanotubes. It's very exciting," Yakobson said.
"The medical applications are interesting. I am looking forward to seeing how (principal investigator for the Kanzius project) Steve Curley does with them."
Concept receives media attention
HOUSTON -- One of John Kanzius' grandchildren was visiting a doctor in February, when she spotted him on a waiting-room television.
CNN was broadcasting a story about Kanzius' radio-frequency generator.
The cable network originally showed the feature in 2007, but reran it on a health show it sends to physician offices across the country.
"She told people, 'That's my grandpa on TV,'" Kanzius said with a chuckle.
You can expect to see more of Kanzius on national television in upcoming weeks.
"60 Minutes" has interviewed Kanzius and researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a story it plans to broadcast about his invention. A date has not been announced, but Kanzius said he thinks it will run in late March.
Having Kanzius' invention broadcast on national television could boost fundraising efforts, but it also causes principal investigator Steven Curley, M.D., to worry about potential problems.
"It scares the heck out of me," Curley said with a thin smile.
"I told ("60 Minutes" reporter) Leslie Stahl that we're not ready to treat patients, but viewers might not hear that. I also don't know what John said about things."
It's not the first time a national television news show or large-circulation newspaper has reported on the Kanzius project.
Stories have run on the CBS "Early Show", "Good Morning America" and in the Los Angeles Times.
DAVID BRUCE can be reached at 870-1736 or by e-mail.
New Fundraising Organization
A new nonprofit organization is raising money for John Kanzius' radiofrequency generator.
Community united for a Cancer Cure has become the John Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation. The name has changed because the foundation is now a stand-alone nonprofit organization.
The foundation raises money and awareness for Kanzius' project. The money goes for research at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The foundation and its predecessor, the CCC, have raised $500,000. Some of the money has been used to buy a state-of-the-art microscope at M.D. Anderson.
To donate, visit
www.johnkanziuscancerresearchfoundation.org or visit any First National Bank location.