Blasting radiation therapy into the future: New systems may improve cancer treatment

Image by Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

As a cancer survivor, I know radiation therapy lasting minutes can seem much longer as you lie on the patient bed trying not to move. Future accelerator technology may turn these dreaded minutes into a fraction of a second due to new funding.

Stanford University and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are teaming up to develop a faster and more precise way to deliver X-rays or protons, quickly zapping cancer cells before their surrounding organs can move. This will likely reduce treatment side effects by minimizing damage to healthy tissue.

“Delivering the radiation dose of an entire therapy session with a single flash lasting less than a second would be the ultimate way of managing the constant motion of organs and tissues, and a major advance compared with methods we’re using today,” said Billy Loo, MD, PhD, an associate professor of radiation oncology at Stanford, in a recent SLAC news release.

Currently, most radiation therapy systems work by accelerating electrons through a meter-long tube using radiofrequency fields that travel in the same direction. These electrons then collide with a heavy metal target to convert their energy into high energy X-rays, which are sharply focused and delivered to the tumors.

Now, researchers are developing a new way to more powerfully accelerate the electrons. The key element of the project, called PHASER, is a prototype accelerator component (shown in bronze in this video) that delivers hundreds of times more power than the standard device.

In addition, the researchers are developing a similar device for proton therapy. Although less common than X-rays, protons are sometimes used to kill tumors and are expected to have fewer side effects particularly in sensitive areas like the brain. That’s because protons enter the body at a low energy and release most of that energy at the tumor site, minimizing radiation dose to the healthy tissue as the particles exit the body.

However, proton therapy currently requires large and complex facilities. The Stanford and SLAC team hopes to increase availability by designing a compact, power-efficient and economical proton therapy system that can be used in a clinical setting.

In addition to being faster and possibly more accessible, animal studies indicate that these new X-ray and proton technologies may be more effective.

“We’ve seen in mice that healthy cells suffer less damage when we apply the radiation dose very quickly, and yet the tumor-killing is equal or even a little better than that of a conventional longer exposure,” Loo said in the release. “If the results hold for humans, it would be a whole new paradigm for the field of radiation therapy.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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New Portable Device Quickly Measures Radiation Exposure

Scientists are developing a portable device that can measure a person's radiation exposure in minutes using radiation-induced changes in the concentrations of certain blood proteins. This image shows a magneto-nanosensor chip reader station, chip cartridge, and chip. (Credit: S. Wang)
Scientists are developing a portable device that can measure a person’s radiation exposure in minutes. This image shows a magneto-nanosensor chip reader station, chip cartridge, and chip. (Credit: S. Wang)

Picture the scene of the Fukushima nuclear accident. The Daiichi nuclear reactors were hit by an earthquake of magnitude 9.0 and flooded by the resulting tsunami, which caused a nuclear meltdown and release of radioactive materials. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes due to the threat of radiation contamination.

In a large-scale radiological incident like this, emergency medical personnel need a rapid way to assess radiation exposure so they can identify the people who need immediate care. This radiation-dosimetry technology needs to be sensitive, accurate, fast and easy to use in a non-clinical setting.

Local scientists have developed a small, portable device that can quickly test the level of radiation exposure victims have suffered in such emergencies. This technology was developed by scientists from Berkeley Lab, Stanford University and several other institutions, as reported in a journal article recently published in Scientific Reports. The lead researchers were Dr. Shan Wang from Stanford University and Dr. Andrew Wyrobek from Berkeley Lab.

This new dosimetry device is a novel type of immunoassay. Immunoassays are chemical tests used to detect or measure the quantity of a specific substance in a body fluid sample using a reaction of the immune system. For example, a common immunoassay test for pregnancy measures the concentration of the human chorionic gonadotropin hormone in a woman’s blood or urine sample.

In order to measure a person’s radiation dose, the new device measures a blood sample for the concentration of particular proteins that change after radiation exposure. Scientists, including those in Wyrobek’s group, have previously identified these target proteins as excellent biological markers for radiation dosimetry. Basically, blood exposed to radiation has a special biochemical signature.

But scientists needed more than just target proteins. They also needed an accurate, sensitive way to quickly measure the proteins’ concentrations in a few drops of blood. So at the heart of the new device is a biochip developed by Wang’s group.

The biochip system relies on a sandwich structure where a target protein is trapped between a capture antibody and a detection antibody. The capture antibodies are immobilized on the surface of the biochip sensor. When a drop of blood is placed on the biochip, those antibodies capture the target proteins and the other proteins are washed away. Detection antibodies labeled with magnetic nanoparticles are then added, forming a sandwich structure that traps the target proteins. When an external oscillating magnetic field is then applied, the magnetic nanoparticles generate an electrical signal that is read out. This signal measures the number of magnetic nanoparticles bound to the surface, and this indicates the number of target proteins that have been trapped.

The researchers tested the biochip system using blood from mice that had been exposed to varying levels of radiation. Their novel immunoassay results were validated by comparing them to conventional ELISA immunoassay measurements. Overall the scientists demonstrated that the new biochip dosimetry system is fast, accurate, sensitive and robust. In addition, the whole system is the size of a shoebox so it is very portable.

“You add a drop of blood, wait a few minutes, and get results,” explained Wyrobek in a press release. “The chip could lead to a much-needed way to quickly triage people after possible radiation exposure.” Although the technology is still under development, hopefully it will be available before the next radiological accident or terrorist attack occurs.

For more information about this biochip system, check out my KQED Science blog.