MIT and Still River Systems Inc., a Littleton, Mass. company are working on developing proton treatment for radiation oncology:
The beauty of protons is that they are quite energetic, but their energy can be controlled so they do less collateral damage to normal tissues, compared to powerful x-ray beams. Protons enter the body through skin and tissue, hit the tumor and stop there, minimizing other damage.
Protons are far more massive than the photons in x-rays, and the x-rays tend to pass directly through tissues and can harm living cells along the entire path. The side effects often include skin burns and other forms of tissue damage.
The new machines, in fact, should allow radiation specialists to deposit a far bigger dose of killing power inside the tumor, but spare more of the surrounding normal tissues. This is expected to increase tumor control rates while minimizing side effects.
Because of their high energy and controllability, protons have been used as anti-cancer bullets in the past, with promising results. But medical centers can’t easily come up with the $100 million or more needed to build a proton machine dedicated to this medical use. That’s because protons are produced inside the huge, expensive atomic accelerators that are usually employed at major atomic research centers, including national laboratories.
Now, Antaya [Timothy Antaya is a physicist at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center –ed.] and his colleagues at MIT and at Still River Systems Inc. think they can provide the new machine for far less money, have it occupy just one moderate-size hospital treatment room, and achieve better results than x-ray therapy. MIT is licensing the technology to Still River Systems.
Industry is already showing acute interest in the new technology because more than half of all cancer patients are now treated with radiation, meaning there are two million radiation patients worldwide. That offers a huge market for an effective new radiation system, and the directors of major cancer research and treatment centers are already enthusiastic, Antaya said.