A powerful tool to fight tumors

August 25, 2008 7:53:32 PM PDT
One of the most powerful tools for treating cancerous tumors is only available at a handful of hospitals. The reason is its enormous size and expense. But now researchers here in the Bay Area believe they are close to changing that.

For decades one of the most powerful tools to treat cancerous tumors has only been available at a small handful of hospitals. The reason is its enormous size and expense. But now researchers here in the Bay Area are about to change that.

Danielle Klein has traveled from Arizona to a UC Davis clinic, because of a large tumor in her left eye that's threatening to spread through her body.

"I was imagining what would be like without the eyes, because I'd made up my mind to have the eye removed," said Klein.

But in another room, doctors from UCSF are getting ready to zap the cancer. After placing markers around the tumor during an earlier surgery, they're able to aim a powerful beam that will bombard it with proton particles.

Because of their subatomic behavior, the protons can be calibrated to release most their radioactive energy inside the tumor itself, sparing the rest of the eye.

"So the tumor as a whole gets 100 percent radiation," said UCSF oncologist Dr. Inder Daftari.

Danielle will lose some vision, but keep her eye. The machine that saved it is one of just five in the country. But if it's so powerful -- why so few?

Well, we may have forgotten to mention where those supercharged protons came from.

Next door, encased in concrete several stories high, is a massive cyclotron. It is a World War II era particle accelerator moved from Berkley to UC Davis in the 1960's.

"It takes a lot of space so there are only a few in the country," said UCSF oncologist Dr. Theodore Phillips.

He says the room that houses it is roughly the size of a gymnasium, and is actually the expensive part.

This whole facility would be $30-$40 million," said Dr. Phillips.

That's if your local hospital even had the room to build one. But what if all that power could be generated by something much smaller? Say something that would fit in this room?

"This machine we believe we can compress to something that's a few feet long," said George Caporaso Ph.D. from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

George Caporaso and Shawn Guse are part of team at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, working to develop a different kind of proton generator.

Unlike the giant magnets inside a cyclotron, it uses newer linear technology. The result is a concept model that fits on a table top.

"So if you look at this width, you'll see width of the device, and I'm just over 6 feet, so that would be the height," said Shawn Guse from Compact Particle Acceleration Corp.

Six feet, or in other words shrunken from the size of a basketball court to something that would fit in a large closet.

"Our system should fit in a conventional room and cost $15 to $20 million," said Shawn Guse.

And he says the team is working to have the commercial version on the market in about four years. That means cancer patients could ultimately receive proton therapy in cancer centers around the country, with the hope of results like Danielle Klein.

"I'm really happy, everything's going to be great," said Klein.

Despite being about half the price, the smaller accelerator being developed at Livermore is actually more powerful and can be used to treat other kinds of cancerous tumors deeper in the body.


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