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Published On: Tue, Mar 4th, 2014

Particle Beam Cancer Therapy- Hope Amidst Challenges

Particle physics is often mentioned in the same surreal sentence as The God Particle or exploring new dimensions in space.  But scientists at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have turned their love and knowledge of particle physics towards a much more tangible target for the general public: cancer.

Image/NASA

Image/NASA

Currently, cancer is eliminated through chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  The disadvantage is that both destroy healthy tissues as they indiscriminately kill any dividing cells.  A new report from Brookhaven National Laboratory’s team of scientists points towards using expertise gained in building their Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider to develop a tool to destroy tumors in a precisely targeted manner.

The concept behind particle beam therapy relies on a targeted approach.  Conventional X-ray therapies push beams through all tissues on their way to and through the cancer, leaving energy behind which damages the tumor as well as any normal tissue.  Particle beams on the other hand deposit most of their energy where the beam stops.  Using magnets, this beam is positioned to precisely hone in on a cancer.  Then, the intensity of the beam is turned up to destroy just the cancerous area.  The heavier ions used (versus X-ray photons) and specific targeting allow for a significantly increased ability to kill cancer cells.

“We could cure a very high percentage of tumors if we could give sufficiently high doses of radiation,” said radiation biologist Kathryn Held of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital during her AAAS presentation. “That’s the advantage of particles. We can tailor the dose to the tumor and limit the amount of damage in the critical surrounding normal tissues.”

The idea of particle-based therapy arose just after World War II and coincided with the formation of the 19 US national laboratories, now all run by the Department of Energy.  By 1990, DOE scientists at Fermilab in Illinois had developed a particle beam that would be shipped for use to Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.  More recently, Asia and Europe have shown clinical success using carbon particle therapy in treating cancers.  Currently though, the US has no carbon treatment centers in operation.

Challenges to this technology come from two main areas.  The first is where to do the research.  Because of the refined technology of the machines, they are sparse across the US.  Facilities that do have access are still unsure of the best course of action to take to treat cancers, including beam strength and number and type of heavy ions to use to treat each cancer.

Like many scientific endeavors, the second prohibitive challenge comes from lack of funds.  While many clinical trials have shown success, they are compared across regions and therefore lack the rigorous controls needed to convince funders that the great results are for real.  Hak Choy, a radiation oncologist and chair in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, estimates that a hospital facility capable of handling a beam machine, treating and housing patients, and handling the data would cost $200-300 million to build.  This number is a pittance compared to the $125 billion spent per year on cancer therapies, but because those billions are spread throughout the country, the one-time deposit of hundreds of millions of dollars into one facility makes investors very uneasy.

Options for the future come in many forms, including prototype building to prove efficacy, collaborations among many scientists in an effort to pool resources, and propositioning industries for funding.

“One of the really encouraging things,” said Ken Peach, a physicist and professor at the Particle Therapy Cancer Research Institute at Oxford University, “is that there is this enormous will from the scientists across the different disciplines to try to increase the efficacy of this promising therapy and make it more widely available.”

Here’s hoping they succeed.

Edward Marks is a PhD student at the University of Delaware.  His research involves the healing of burns and other chronic wounds using nanomedicine techniques, with the goal of pushing any advancement directly into the clinic.  Edward received his BS from Rutgers University and Masters from the University of Delaware.

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