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Research / Discovery

Carbon ion therapy may offer hope for cancer patients

August 11, 2010

This year, more than 500,000 Americans are expected to die of cancer - 1,500 people a day. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States - exceeded only by heart disease - accounting for nearly one of every four deaths.

Not being studied anywhere else in U.S.

Jac Nickoloff, head of the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

Now, in an unprecedented partnership with Japan, Colorado State University will begin research into a new and promising treatment for cancer – carbon ion therapy – which is currently not available in the United States.

“This partnership gives Colorado State University ready access to study a unique cancer therapy that has shown great promise in Japanese clinical trials. This therapy is not being studied anywhere else in the United States,” said Jac Nickoloff, head of the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

Tumor responses

“We want to understand the genetic regulation of tumor responses to carbon ion therapy, including DNA repair pathways and DNA damage signaling pathways, and how cancer and normal cells respond to this novel therapy.”

The relative survival rate for all cancers diagnosed between 1996 and 2004 was 66 percent, up from 50 percent in 1975-1977. The improvement reflects the diagnosis of certain cancers at an earlier stage and improvements in treatment. But cancer survival statistics vary greatly and there are still cancers with extremely low rates of cure, including pancreatic and brain cancers. Carbon ion therapy may offer new hope for patients with these devastating diseases.

Trilogy of cancer expertise within CVMBS

The partnership involves a trilogy of cancer expertise from the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences:

Exterior of the HIMAC facility in Chiba, Japan.

The Center for Environmental Medicine, which will house this new research initiative, was launched in 2008 at CSU in partnership with Japan during a trade mission trip led by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.

Counterparts in Japan

Counterparts in Japan are Gifu University School of Medicine and the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, called NIRS, located in Chiba, which is Japan’s equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

NIRS is home to HIMAC, a heavy ion medical accelerator in Chiba – one of only three heavy ion medical accelerators operating worldwide, including another facility in Japan and one in Germany.

Carbon ions more destructive

Carbon ion therapy works in a similar way to traditional radiation therapy that uses photons, in that a cancerous tumor is targeted with the goal to destroy cancer cells. Carbon ions, however, are particles with mass whereas photons are massless. The size of carbon ions allows them to cause more havoc and create irreparable damage when they hit a cancer cell.

Another benefit: unlike traditional radiation therapies, carbon ion treatments cause relatively little damage to healthy cells in the path to the tumor. Scientists can control the depth in the body that the ions penetrate, and tailor the “shape” of the energy deposited by the carbon ions to closely match the shape of a tumor. Once the ions reach the tumor, the energy is delivered in a very narrow zone, almost like an explosion within the tumor. The treatment provides doctors with important options when targeting tumors near sensitive structures such as the brain.

Illustration of a magnified cancer cell.

Stem cells and carbon ion therapy

“One particular area of interest is the impact of carbon ion therapy on stem cells,” said Nickoloff.

“One theory is that tumors begin with stem cells and that’s what makes it so difficult to cure some cancers. Stem cells are resistant to conventional therapy and can remain after treatment, ready to proliferate again.

"Carbon ion therapy causes damage that is much more complex and difficult for the cancer cell to repair. We want to see if that damage is persistent.

"We’ve brought in a leader in the field of stem cells to help us understand that problem, Dr. Xiao-Jing Wang, a professor and director of the Head and Neck Cancer Research Program at the University of Colorado.”

Clinical trials to treat tumors in cats, dogs, humans

In Japan, more than 5,000 patients have already been treated with experimental HIMAC therapy. CSU, NIRS, and CU will partner on research into heavy ion radiotherapy and eventually embark on clinical trials to treat naturally occurring tumors in larger animals such as cats and dogs, and in humans.

“Our partnership with Japan also has led to the first joint faculty appointment between a U.S. university and a Japanese research institute, with the hire of a CSU alum and native of Japan who has expertise in toxicology and cancer,” said Bill Hanneman, director of the Center for Environmental Medicine. “Dr. Takamitsu Kato began working at CSU in April and he will travel to NIRS twice a year to pursue research projects using the HIMAC.”

Article originally published in the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences Emitter newsletter, Summer 2010.