Can Lasers Be Used to Treat ‘Inoperable’ Brain Tumors?

Brain surgery to remove many tumors is often complicated in that surgery will damage areas of the brain necessary for many essential life skills and functions. Delivery of chemotherapy or radiation can avoid these side effects; however, neither is very effective at controlling or curing most brain tumors.

Recently, a novel treatment known as laser interstitial thermal therapy, or LITT is being increasingly used to deliver heat deep inside tissues to destroy tumor cells at a few major cancer centers. The specially designed probe can deliver heat and destroy brain and spinal cord tumors — regardless of their size or location. In fact many types of tumors previously thought to be inoperable can be treated with this technology, including aggressive tumors that originate in the brain or spinal cord, or tumors that have spread to the brain or spine from other areas of the body.

How does LITT work?

Neurosurgeons first study MRI scans of a patient’s brain to create a map of coordinates that they can follow to treat the tumor. The patient is then put to sleep with general anesthesia and placed inside an MRI machine that’s open on both ends.

A small, dime-sized hole is drilled in the patient’s skull, and the probe, which is no wider than a pencil, is inserted into the brain. The probe is then guided using the previously mapped coordinates into the middle of the tumor. Once in place, the doctor fires a laser beam from its tip. The intense heat destroys the tumor’s cells. Each burst form the laser probe lasts anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes and generates heat ranging from 158 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the patient is continuously imaged inside the MRI, the surgeon can watch the tumor’s destruction on a monitor as it is happening.

Laser interstitial thermal therapy is an emerging technique to treat primary and metastatic brain tumors that can be hard to reach with conventional surgery.


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