Microsecond and nanosecond electric pulses in cancer treatments

Bioelectromagnetics. 2012 Feb;33(2):106-23. doi: 10.1002/bem.20692. Epub 2011 Aug 3.


New local treatments based on electromagnetic fields have been developed as non-surgical and minimally invasive treatments of tumors. In particular, short electric pulses can induce important non-thermal changes in cell physiology, especially the permeabilization of the cell membrane. The aim of this review is to summarize the present data on the electroporation-based techniques: electrochemotherapy (ECT), nanosecond pulsed electric fields (nsPEFs), and irreversible electroporation (IRE). ECT is a safe, easy, and efficient technique for the treatment of solid tumors that uses cell-permeabilizing electrical pulses to enhance the activity of a non-permeant (bleomycin) or low permeant (cisplatin) anticancer drug with a very high intrinsic cytotoxicity. The most interesting feature of ECT is its unique ability to selectively kill tumor cells without harming normal surrounding tissue. ECT is already used widely in the clinics in Europe. nsPEFs could represent a drug free, purely electrical cancer therapy. They allow the inhibition of tumor growth, and interestingly, nsPEF can target intracellular organelles. However, many questions remain on the mechanism of action of these pulses. Finally, IRE is a new ablation procedure using pulses that provoke the permanent permeabilization of the cells resulting in their death. This technique does not result in any thermal effect, which is its main advantage in current physical ablation technologies. For both the nsPEF and the IRE, the preservation of the normal tissue, which is characteristic of ECT, has not yet been shown and their safety and efficacy still have to be investigated thoroughly in vivo and in the clinics.

Keywords: biomedical application; electrochemotherapy; electropermeabilization; electroporation; irreversible electroporation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / methods*
  • Electrochemotherapy / methods*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Humans
  • Nanotechnology / methods*
  • Neoplasms / therapy*


  • Antineoplastic Agents