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Portsmouth company on a mission to fight cancer

Union Leader Correspondent

June 23. 2013 3:43PM

Mike Ambogi, chief operating officer for Novocure in Portsmouth demonstrates how the company's TTF therapy works. (GRETYL MACALASTER PHOTO)

PORTSMOUTH - Israeli doctor Yoram Palti had been studying the electrical characteristics of the body for years when in 2000 he discovered a way those characteristics might be used to treat cancer.

Fast forward 13 years, and Palti's theories have not only been proven but are being used to treat patients with a particularly deadly type of brain cancer.

In late 2011, after receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use the tumor treating fields, or TTF therapy, on patients with recurrent glioblastoma, Novocure was created in Portsmouth to start marketing the device.

Novocure is dedicated to the development of TTF therapy as a new weapon for patients and physicians in the battle against cancer.

Until now, most treatments focused on the biochemical aspects of the body, which means treatments affect both healthy and cancerous cells, leading to many negative side effects.

TTF therapy is targeted and uses electrical fields to slow or reverse tumor progression by inducing cell death in certain solid tumors.

"If we can affect that with some specificity, we can essentially stop the tumor from growing," said Mike Ambrogi, chief operating officer for Novocure. "It is a completely different approach to affecting cancer."

TTF therapy targets the area where the cancer is in a noninvasive way that allows patients to go about their daily lives. Two pairs of small electrical arrays are placed on the head and attached to a battery pack that sends a current through to the arrays, leading to a warm sensation for the patient.

The only other known side effect is skin irritation at the site of the arrays.

Currently, TTF therapy has been approved for patients with a recurring form of glioblastoma, or GBM, the most common form of primary brain cancer, and the most malignant.

GBM affects about 10,000 people in the United States each year, and patients are often given a life expectancy of under two years when diagnosed.

Clinical trials of TTF began on humans in 2003, and in 2011, after a large-scale trial, the FDA approved the limited use of TTF therapy for recurrent GBM.

"The study showed our treatment … was as good as the best available chemotherapies," Ambrogi said, without the side effects and with a higher quality of life.

The number of patients whose tumors shrunk by 50 percent was twice as many as those treated by chemotherapy, although the numbers were still small, 14 patients versus seven, Ambrogi said.

With that approval, the company was able to transition from a small development company to a commercial company actually selling a product.

Now there are numerous other trials underway, both large and small, to test the treatment on other kinds of cancer, including lung, ovarian, prostate and other forms of brain cancer. The company is also seeking approval for newly diagnosed GBM patients.

Ambrogi said the company is in the infancy stages of what the treatment can do, and as a result, the company continues to grow.

Novocure just expanded its operational headquarters for the United States on Commerce Way from 10,000 to 23,000 square feet. About 45 people work out of the Portsmouth office, which also serves as a training center for field technicians spread out around the country to help patients and physicians learn how to use the therapy.

The company also operates a research and development center in Haifa, Israel; the chief financial officer and legal team are based in Philadelphia; and the oncology executives are based in New York.

The durable equipment is manufactured in Israel, and the arrays are manufactured in California.

Boston is one of the largest medical technology company hubs in the country, but Ambrogi said he believes in the New Hampshire way of life, and said things are incrementally easier up here than down on Route 128.

The Portsmouth area is increasingly becoming a home to other medical device companies as well, with companies like Salient Surgical just down the street.

The risk was whether Novocure could attract the right people to run what is truly both a medical device and an oncology company, but that has never been a problem.

"People feel they are here on a mission. Nobody is just here for a job," Ambrogi said.

He said he expects the therapy to be approved for new applications soon.

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