In MIT's Technology review it is explained that electric fields can cause dividing cancer cells to explode, while these fields have no significant impact on non-dividing tissues. The original research was done by Palti et al.

What is the mechanism behind this? It does not seem to be related to thermal effects.

Edit: The treatment in question seems controversial. A clinical trial showed improvement but it is not rock-solid data.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Could you link to the trial paper? $\endgroup$
    – Rory M
    Jun 3, 2015 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ @RoryM ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/15126372 $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Jun 3, 2015 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternating_electric_field_therapy $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Jun 3, 2015 at 17:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I am deeply suspicious of this. It's not theoretically impossible but if it worked the way it is supposed to work patients should experience hair loss. It's been shown to be not worse than chemo for treating recurrent glioblastoma, but that's a far cry from a real benefit. $\endgroup$
    – Resonating
    Jun 3, 2015 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ I edited your question somewhat in terms of style. Please feel free to roll back. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jun 4, 2015 at 10:58

1 Answer 1


In a PNAS paper by Palti's group (2007) they explain the hypothesis behind the technique:

They reason alternating currents of 100 kHz to 1 MHz specifically affects dividing cells and thereby targets cancer cells. Note that this is the same basic idea as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which also target dividing cells mostly. The mechanism of action of alternating electric fields on dividing cells is though to be the result of a specific effect on the bridge separating the daughter (cancer) cells during cell division (Fig. 1). They think it interferes with spindle tubulin orientation and induces electrophoretic effects (Kirson et al., 2007), resulting in a pile-up of cytoplasmatic organelles at the cleavage furrow. This is thought to interfere with cytokinesis, and to lead to cell destruction** (Kirson et al., 2004).

Note it is the frequency that differentiates between the various effects of current stimuli. At very low frequencies (1 KHz) electric fields stimulate excitable tissues through membrane depolarization. At higher frequencies this excitatory effect is lost. At very high frequencies (>1 MHz) tissue heating results (e.g., microwave ovens). Hence, alternating electric fields of intermediate frequencies (10 kHz to 1 MHz) were considered not to have any meaningful thermal effects (Kirson et al., 2004).

Palti's electrophoresis
Fig. 1. Palti's electric field hypothesis. Source: Kirson et al. (2007)

- Kirson et al., Cancer Res (2004); 64: 3288-95
- Kirson et al., PNAS (2007); 104(24): 10152–57

  • $\begingroup$ This is just a hypothesis, there are unanswered questions such as why does it have little/no side effects like hair loss that normal anti-mitotics do. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2015 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @KevinKostlan correct, it's a hypothesis. The reason why there is no hair loss is that the electrical field was applied locally via electrodes, so there were no systemic side effects reported. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jun 5, 2015 at 21:41
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD The missing hair loss is kind of strange. We expect an effect on the deeper lying brain but see no effect on the hair bulbs which are located directly in the skin? I don't believe this. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Jun 9, 2015 at 7:00

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