Get focused: Tools of radiation therapy come together in new center

October 24, 2012 | by Alicia Di Rado

Photo of the Elsie and Robert Pierson Radiation Oncology Center The center features two Varian TrueBeam units. (Photo by Thomas Brown)

Did you know that some three quarters of all cancer patients who undergo radiation today are actually treated with the intent to cure them – not just to ease their symptoms or slow cancer’s growth?

Radiation therapy works, and it’s come a long way. It’s often the first choice of treatment for some cancers, and researchers aim to make it even better. Radiation oncologists are trying to focus radiation more tightly than ever on cancer so radiation goes exactly where it’s needed. They’re using some impressive new tools to get there.

You can find them in City of Hope’s new Elsie and Robert Pierson Radiation Oncology Center, which was just approved by state officials and will open to patients soon.

In the center, new CT, PET, and MRI imaging gets paired up with the latest units that deliver beams of radiation to patients. Here’s what’s new: The setup actually can image, see and treat tumors more accurately and even adjust to a patient’s breathing. So when a lung cancer patient takes a breath and his tumor moves as his lungs expand, the machine actually stops. He only gets radiation when the tumor returns to its original spot. This happens automatically, and it cuts down on radiation exposure to healthy tissue.

The doctors are even finding ways to use other kinds of energy to hit cancer. The center has a new unit that uses focused ultrasound to kill cancer cells. Powerful MR (or magnetic resonance) imaging shows doctors a detailed map of a tumor, so they can guide sound waves straight to the tumor without ever having to use a scalpel. Physicians also will use PET (positron emission tomography) imaging, giving them a fuller picture of cancer within the body.

It’s all part of a broader movement within radiation oncology that incorporates other tools, too. Oncologists are giving patients drugs that can make cancer cells more vulnerable to being killed by radiation, for example.

“It’s an exciting time for us in radiation oncology,” says Jeffrey Wong, chair of City of Hope’s Department of Radiation Oncology. “Not only will our new center make treatment more comfortable to patients, but we expect that the technologies will enable us to provide more radiation to cancer cells while reducing side effects.

“Bringing such advanced imaging side by side with our radiation-emitting equipment ushers in a whole new era.”

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