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Treating cancer with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy is the best we can do when faced with the impending horror of it. Even these are not perfect solutions: it takes weeks and months until results can be seen, and the healthy cells might get collateral damage from the radiation. Thankfully, scientists in the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennslyvania have shown that this process is not our only option.
According to the research which was published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, and Physics, it is possible to give a patient the same amount of radiation as they would normally receive over weeks. This can be done with FLASH radiotherapy.
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Normally, killing cancer cells with radiation and drugs is rather easy; however, tumors like to hide and this makes healthy cells around them susceptible to damage. Radiation therapy takes weeks, and this creates more opportunities where healthy cells can be affected. As a result, the patient can experience health problems even if the cancer is destroyed.
With FLASH radiotherapy, the effect on the cancer cells is the same, but the collateral damage to the healthy tissue is crucially reduced.
The new study shows that changing the type of particle used, i.e. changing electrons to protons, makes FLASH radiotherapy more effective. Electrons don’t penetrate deep into the body, which makes them useful only with cancer types such as skin cancer.
The researchers used protons, which penetrate deeper into the body, to prevent electron-related issues. Protons are useful against most tumor types, and linear accelerators that are already in use at hospitals can be adapted to produce them.
The test was carried out on mice with pancreatic flank tumors. Astonishingly, the method prevented the growth of cancer as effectively as regular radiation therapy and reduced the loss of healthy cells.
Moreover, proton FLASH therapy didn’t cause side effects such as intestinal fibrosis, which is common in radiation therapy.
The next step for the researchers is translating the treatment to clinical trials and designing a new system that can deliver the proton radiation to humans.