Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals: Radio wave treatment is effective against Barrett's esophagus

In the journals

Radio wave treatment is effective against Barrett's esophagus

Barrett's esophagus is a condition in which damage to the lining of the lower esophagus results in changes that can turn into cancer. It's usually caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a chronic disorder that causes acidified stomach contents to back up (reflux) into the lower esophagus. Of the 10 million American adults who have GERD, one million have Barrett's esophagus. Of those with Barrett's, a small percentage will develop esophageal adenocarcinoma, a particularly deadly form of cancer.

Clinicians monitor Barrett's esophagus for precancerous changes by means of endoscopy (an examination of the esophagus with a lighted tube inserted down the throat) and biopsy. If suspicious cells are found, the usual treatment is surgery to remove the damaged portion of the esophagus (esophagectomy). But esophagectomy is highly invasive and carries considerable risks, so several nonsurgical methods have been developed. According to a study in the May 28, 2009, New England Journal of Medicine, one such procedure, called radiofrequency ablation (RFA), can eliminate Barrett's esophagus and reduce the risk of cancer, with relatively few side effects. RFA works by destroying the abnormal cells with high-intensity radio waves.

In a multicenter trial led by researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, 127 patients with Barrett's esophagus were randomly assigned to either RFA or a sham technique. RFA for Barrett's is an outpatient procedure performed under mild sedation. It was developed by Bârrx Medical Inc., which also funded the study. A balloon catheter covered with electromagnetic coils is inserted into the esophagus and inflated at the place where the abnormal cells are found. Radio wave energy passing through the coils then burns away the affected tissue, leaving normal tissue undamaged. In the sham procedure, the catheter was inserted, but no radio waves passed through.

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