About this Article
Written by: Matthew Behrend
Written on: April 28th, 2003
Tags: biomedical engineering
Thumbnail by: Illumin
About the Author
At the time of writing, Matthew Behrend was a junior majoring in Electrical Engineering. He enjoys dancing and photography when he is not blowing things up in the lab.
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Volume V Issue I > UPSET: Triggering Natural Cell Death in Cancer
Ultra-short Pulsed Systems Electroperturbation Technology (UPSET) has the potential to become a new cancer treatment due to its ability to trigger apoptosis, the natural death mode of cells. During apoptosis, a cell initiates a self-termination process to remove it without affecting surrounding tissue. UPSET generates and delivers pulses of 40 kV/cm and 20 nanoseconds in duration to cancer cells. The electric fields target the internal organelles of the cell rather than the outer membrane as in traditional pulsed electric field research. Cells undergo electrical perturbation without experiencing structural damage or thermal heating. Future cancer treatments with UPSET could use catheter delivery systems that would be much less invasive than either surgical removal of tumors or chemotherapy. UPSET research is a collaboration between the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine Department of Cell and Neurobiology and the USC Department of Electrical Engineering-Electrophysics.


When cells become unhealthy or their numbers need to be managed, the body instigates a defined self-destruct process called apotosis and commonly referred to as "programmed cell death." Cancer is a mutation that can occur in any type of cell, inhibiting normal growth and other regulatory functions. Since they are not receiving regulatory signals from neighboring ells, cancer cells grow at uncontrolled rates. Apoptosis is a major cell regulatory mechanism, for which cancer has resistance. Cancer cells fail to undergo apoptosis, and therefore exhibit increased life spans compared to their normal counterparts [1].
Although cancerous cells generally ignore signals to enter apoptosis, the cancer cells may be commanded to self-destruct by pulsed electric fields. Local delivery of fast electric field pulses could possibly be applied to cancer treatment in the future as alternatives to harsh chemotherapy and surgical removal of tumors.

Overview of the Research

Scientists in the University of Southern California's Department of Electrical Engineering are developing new technology that can induce apoptosis in cancer cells by exposure to pulsed electric fields, called Ultra-short Pulsed Systems Electroperturbation Technology (UPSET). USC's Pulsed Power research team, led by Dr. Martin Gundersen, designs state-of-the-art pulse generators and explores the ability of UPSET to induce apoptosis in human cancer cells (Fig. 1). This research is an interdisciplinary effort with collaboration between the Pulsed Power Team and the USC Keck School of Medicine Department of Cell and Neurobiology.
Figure 1: New research into UPSET is exploring the ability to induce cancer cell death.
Researchers are investigating three main areas: the apoptotic response dependence on different USPET pulse characteristics, imaging of cells after pulse exposure, and application of UPSET to kill various different kinds of cells.