Proton therapy may help destroy tumors more efficiently

FRESNO, Calif.

Dr. Jeffrey Bradley, Professor of Radiation Oncology at the Washington University School of Medicine, is anxious to show off his new toy. This mini proton accelerator has been years in the making. "It's a first of its kind," he told Action News. While it looks like something that should be blasting into space, this 50-ton machine that's 12 feet underground will soon be zapping potential killers "beyond what current cancer therapies can."

With traditional therapies like X-ray, a patient's healthy tissues are often hit by radiation. This machine is so precise that doctors can hit tumors with higher doses--without damaging surrounding organs. "For a tumor that's near the eye, you don't want to spray it with excess radiation," said Dr. Bradley.

Until now, proton beam facilities in the United States would cost more than 150 million dollars and require the space of a football field. This machine cost 75 percent less and fits into a single room. While it could cost up to 20 percent more than traditional treatments, for some patients it could be worth it. "Less side effects. There should be less side effects because you have less normal tissues that are getting hit," Dr. Bradley said.

Kids who receive radiation for brain tumors are at risk of long term disability and stunted growth. "Protons are actually ideal for many pediatric patients." While not everyone will benefit from proton therapy, a machine like this could give more patient more options. "You might seek it out. As a parent I imagine I would. Now we can provide that," said Dr. Bradley.

Proton therapy is especially useful to treat cancers around the eyes, face, base of the brain and spine.

Over the next few years, more of the machines are expected to pop up across the country. Dr. Bradley says as that happens, treatment will become more affordable. He plans to begin treating his first patients within the next few months.

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