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Veterinary Medicine

CSU researchers explore the promise of carbon ion therapy to tackle intransigent cancers

April 27, 2012

In a darkened conference room, strange images appear and disappear on the large screen directly to the left of Dr. Tadashi Kamada, director of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences Research Center for Charged Particle Therapy in Japan.

Kamada, Tsujii and NickoloffHis audience could not be more rapt, for the images seem to portray the impossible.

An MRI screen capture shows a massive tumor filling up half of a young woman’s pelvis. This invasive cancer, called a chondrosarcoma, demands surgery, perhaps including partial removal of the patient’s pelvis and most likely her leg as well. But in the next image, three years post-treatment, the woman sits and smiles brightly, both her pelvis and leg intact, her new baby comfortably ensconced on her lap.

More case images follow, each one seemingly more impossible than the last. What appears to be certain death, is proceeded by a simple thing – a normal life. Thanks to an advanced cancer treatment called carbon ion radiation therapy, the prognosis for these Japanese cancer patients often is more positive than their cancer brethren in the United States. And that’s something researchers at Colorado State University and the National Institute of Radiological Sciences are working to change.

Symposium explores heavy ion treatments

On April 26 and 27, CSU and NIRS hosted a joint symposium, New Frontiers in Cancer Treatment: A Focus on Photon and Carbon Ion Radiation Therapy, that explored the treatment strategies for specific cancers using traditional photon radiotherapy and heavy ion radiotherapy. Nearly 150 attendees and presenters came together from around the United States and abroad representing private and public enterprises in basic and translational cancer research, clinical treatment, medical equipment, information technology, and patient support services. In this forum, attendees learned, shared, and strategized a path forward to give U.S. cancer patients the opportunity to receive treatment in Japan and, in the longer term, to bring carbon ion radiation therapy to the United States.

“Increased biological effect is one of the most attractive reasons for using carbon ions because many types of tumors, including sarcomas, adenocarcinoma, and osteosarcoma, are considered to be resistant to conventional radiotherapy," said Dr. Hirohiko Tsujii, Fellow Emeritus and recent Executive Director of NIRS, where more than 7,000 patients have been treated since 1994, with clinical results confirming the efficacy of carbon ion therapy. "The second attractive point in the clinical situation is shortness of the treatment. We think we can complete total treatment in the shortest possible time among the many other modalities in the world."

Beams of heavier ions like carbon can be accelerated to precise energies (check out the Bragg peak) and accurately targeted to both large and small tumors. This precision is particularly important when treating tumors that are irregularly shaped or dangerously positioned; a tumor, for example that surrounds the spinal cord, or is close to the optic nerve, next to the gastrointestinal system, or located in the center of the brain. With carbon ion therapy, ionization density increases with depth in the body, and allows for a tighter dose distribution of cancer-destroying radiation. This precision minimizes damage to surrounding tissues and makes carbon ion radiation therapy a better choice for a subset of cancers, particularly when surgery is high risk or chemotherapy too debilitating to the body’s normal tissues.

CSU creating institute for cancer medicine, international collabortion

“We have many of the pieces in place to move forward,” said Jac Nickoloff, Head of the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. “In 2012/2013, we want to take those pieces to create an institute for cancer medicine; an international collaboration that will include a medical physics training program, a cancer patient transfer program, and a cancer training and medical informatics program.

“Eventually, we would like to bring carbon ion radiotherapy to the United States and to Colorado. We have one of the premier veterinary teaching hospitals in the world, home to the Animal Cancer Center, where there is great potential to use naturally occurring tumors in animal models to enhance human cancer therapy.”

The College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences began its formal association with NIRS in 2008 when the two institutions signed a research and education partnership agreement, based on relationships established in previous years with faculty members in ERHS. Since then, the partnerships have resulted in student exchanges, joint faculty appointments, an expansion of research projects (particularly in the wake of the East Japan Great Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in 2011), and the cooperative procurement of a new data management system for maintaining cancer records.

The symposium provided the opportunity to build on that partnership, as well as bring in additional collaborators. During the two days of proceedings, participants learned about and saw the results of carbon ion radiation therapy on bone and soft-tissue tumors, prostate cancer, lung cancer, and other malignancies; explored the future of carbon ion radiation therapy and construction of new centers around the world; translational research, clinical trials and clinical practice; and discussed next steps to develop integrated training, research and patient care programs.

Dr. Kamada held the attention of his audience throughout his presentation on head and neck cancer, and bone and soft-tissue tumors. As cancer patients grace the large screen, his comments are soft, understated and genuinely expressed, “This one is special,” “This one is such a surprise,” “This one is so incredible.” One of the world’s leading experts in carbon ion radiation therapy for cancer, Dr. Kamada’s accomplishments are only outweighed by his humility and the gift of normalcy he has given to so many of his patients – a gift he and his colleagues at CSU and NIRS hope to soon be able to share with American cancer patients.

Contact: Dell Rae Moellenberg
Phone: (970) 491-6009