When doctors told John Kanzius he had nine months to live, he quietly thanked God for his blessings and prepared to die. Then 58, he had...

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ERIE, Pa. — When doctors told John Kanzius he had nine months to live, he quietly thanked God for his blessings and prepared to die.

Then 58, he had lived a good life. Now he had leukemia and was ready to accept his fate, but the visits to the cancer ward shook him. Faces haunted him — the bald and bandaged heads, bodies slumped in wheelchairs, and children who could not play.

Like him, they had endured chemo, which caused their weight to plummet, hands to shake, bodies to weaken and immune systems to break down. Kanzius thought there had to be a more humane way to treat cancer.

Kanzius did not have a medical background, but he knew radios. He had built and fixed them since he was a child, knew how to send radio-wave signals around the world. If he could transmit them into cancer cells, he wondered, could he then direct the radio waves to destroy tumors, while leaving healthy cells intact?

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Awake one early morning in 2003, Kanzius grabbed some copper wires, boxes, antennas and his wife’s pie pans, and began building a machine.

Sending radio waves

He knew metal would heat when exposed to radio waves. He wanted to focus the waves by inserting metal particles into tumors. The infused cells would be placed in a radio-frequency field. The waves would pass through the body, and the particles injected into the cancer would heat and kill the cells without harming anything else.

He built a machine to send the waves, while undergoing his second round of chemo.

By Christmas 2003, a weary and weak Kanzius tested his machine with hot dogs, then liver, then steak. He injected minerals into the meat and placed the slabs into his machine. To his delight, the injected portions of meat burned. But would it work on people?

The worst of Kanzius’ treatment was over by spring 2004, and the cancer was in remission.

Reinvigorated, Kanzius knew he needed to get the word out about his discovery.

Dr. David Geller, co-director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s liver-cancer program, read about Kanzius’ machine and called him.

Kanzius had secured a patent and asked a company that made transmitters to build a model. He sent it to the medical center so Geller could test it.

A year later, Kanzius shared his theory with his leukemia doctor at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who put him in contact with Dr. Steven Curley, an oncologist on staff who specialized in radiofrequency cancer treatment.

Doctors already use a treatment called radiofrequency ablation to kill cancer. The method involves inserting needles into tumors and killing them with electrodes. The invasive procedure is limited because it can reach only certain sites, mostly small tumors, and it can damage healthy cells in the surrounding area.

Curley asked whether Kanzius could find a substance that could attach to cancer cells and burn when hit with radio waves, sparing healthy cells.

Kanzius said he might be able to use nanoparticles, molecules so small that 75,000 to 100,000 lined up side by side equal the width of a strand of human hair. He thought nanoparticles potentially could be directed to travel through the bloodstream and stick only to cancer cells — a patient would swallow a pill or take a shot containing them. But would they burn?

Kanzius needed to get his hands on some nanoparticles.

Curley got in touch with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley, who specialized in nanoscience and was also being treated at M.D. Anderson. The chemist did not think the nanoparticles would burn, but he agreed to give Curley two vials.

“Keep doing this work”

In June 2005, Kanzius placed the nanoparticles in the radio field of his machine and turned it on. They burned.

Shortly before he died in October 2005, Smalley made a final request to Curley, who would not forget his words: “Nothing has the potential to help people, to help patients, more than this. You have to promise me to keep doing this work.”

With the project moving along, Kanzius invited scholars, politicians and scientists to Erie for demonstrations. This spring, a Canadian health minister noticed how quickly condensation formed on the test-tube walls during the process: With the world’s need for fresh water, he asked Kanzius, could his machine be used to desalinate water?

A few weeks later, Kanzius tried to heat and distill water mixed with salt in a test tube, which he placed into his generator. He turned on the radio frequencies, and held a match to the saltwater.

Flames erupted.

The radio waves had weakened the bonds that held together the elements that made up the water, and ignited the hydrogen. The results left scientists excited by the possibility of separating hydrogen — the most abundant element in the universe — from saltwater to use as a fuel.

Rustum Roy, a Penn State University chemist and water-science expert, called it the most remarkable discovery in water science in the last century. The saltwater discovery pleased Kanzius, but the cancer project took precedence.

Four years after he came up with his idea, researchers continued experiments, and killed human cancer cells in petri dishes using nanoparticles and his machine. They recently killed 100 percent of cancer cells grown in the livers of rabbits, using Kanzius’ method.

Curley said the treatment is the most promising he has seen because it has the potential to kill cancer — without invasive treatment or surgery — that doctors now have no way of detecting. The next step for scientists is to perfect a method of binding nanoparticles with antibodies that, when introduced into the bloodstream, will attach only to cancer cells while avoiding normal cells. He said the treatment could work on any kind of cancer, and he estimates clinical trials are three to four years away.

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