Cutting-edge technology gives hope to Regina man fighting deadly cancer

While it looked like he was running out of options, a new technology called the "NanoKnife" offered Mobashar Ahmad a glimmer of hope in treating his pancreatic cancer.

NanoKnife treatment offered on trial basis at University of Saskatchewan

NanoKnife technology — seen here in use at Toronto's University Health Network — is currently being used on a trial basis at the University of Saskatchewan. It's helping patients like Regina's Mobashar Ahmad in fighting cancerous tumours that are dangerous to treat with other conventional methods. (University Health Network)

A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer hit Regina's Mobashar Ahmad hard last year. For decades, such a diagnosis has been a virtual death sentence, as three-quarters of patients diagnosed with this kind of cancer don't survive past a year.

"It was scary. It was tough on the family, tough on me," Ahmad told CBC Radio's The Morning Edition about getting the diagnosis, after believing at first that the back pain he was experiencing was just a symptom of getting older.

He spent the next several months in and out of doctors' offices, trying chemotherapy and radiation, and undergoing surgery.

However, the tumour was wrapped around a blood vessel and the surgeon told Ahmad she could not remove it entirely.

While it looked like he was running out of options, a new and uniquely precise technology called the "NanoKnife" offered Ahmad a glimmer of hope.

The NanoKnife

Dr. Michael Moser, a surgeon at the University of Saskatchewan, explains the NanoKnife is an experimental cancer treatment system, developed by the U.S. company AngioDynamics, which is being tested in Saskatchewan on a trial basis.

It was good to meet him and be able to tell him there was some hope here.- Dr. Michael Moser

Moser saw that Ahmad's tumour had responded well to chemotherapy, and was within the right size for the NanoKnife to tackle, making Ahmad a candidate for the treatment.

"It was good to meet him and be able to tell him there was some hope here," Moser said.

Dr. Michael Moser is one of the doctors at the University of Saskatchewan using the experimental NanoKnife treatment system to remove patients' cancerous tumours. The NanoKnife is being tested in Saskatchewan on a trial basis. (CBC)

Unlike radiation, or cancer treatments that heat tissues and cause them to cook and burn, the NanoKnife typically uses four special electrode needles that are strategically placed around a tumour, Moser explained.

When the machine is turned on, it sends short, powerful bursts of currents through the tumour, blasting millions of small holes in the cells in that zone.

Cancer cells become 'sinking ships'

"Cells with holes in the wall, they're a bit like sinking ships," said Moser. "So they start to take on water, they start to lose their own contents. They try to bail and keep up, but eventually they can't keep up and the cells die."

Initially, Moser said he was skeptical about the effectiveness of the NanoKnife and he and other doctors approached it with some caution. But so far, it appears to be an alternative that works.

"I think what impresses our team more than anything is the safety of this," he said.

Sometimes, tumours are too close to blood vessels, ducts or the bowels to allow for surgery or the use of heat. However, the NanoKnife can still safely be used in these situations, Moser said.

He believes the NanoKnife may also offer broader and safe treatment options for other cancers, such as kidney cancers that may otherwise necessitate the removal of kidneys.

'Over the moon' after treatment

Ahmad underwent NanoKnife treatment in May, and said it was a completely different experience from his earlier surgery.

"It was open surgery but I was out of the hospital within three days. And it was just amazing."

It was hard to believe I went through that year and a half, took so much abuse from chemo, and survived.- Mobashar Ahmad

He had follow-up chemotherapy, which he finished last month, and a recent PET scan revealed the tumour was gone. Ahmad said he and his family were "over the moon" with the news.

While it's still too early to call himself cancer-free, he says right now, he feels wonderful, with no symptoms — something Moser is glad to see.

With pancreatic cancer having a seven per cent survival rate after five years, doctors can face a tough uphill battle in fighting the disease.

"As pancreatic cancer doctors, it is extremely frustrating. We've heard the statistics," Moser said.

"And to see something new like this come along and to see some promising results, it's extremely gratifying."

With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition