August 2, 2013
by Coleman Cornelius
Cancer experts from around the world converged in Denver in early August to analyze the success of cutting-edge radiation therapies, and to determine how one promising treatment option could be delivered for the first time to cancer patients in the United States.
The symposium, “Advanced Radiation Oncology Treatment Strategies with Photon, Proton and Carbon Ion Radiation,” was at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and highlighted discoveries from research teams in the United States, Germany and Japan.
Sponsors included the University of Colorado School of Medicine, CU Cancer Center, and CU Department of Radiation Oncology; Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center, CSU Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences; and the Japan National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS).
Much of the symposium focused on carbon ion radiotherapy – a treatment successfully used for cancer patients in Japan for some 20 years, yet never provided for a patient in the United States because of high cost, lack of availability, and the need for more convincing basic and clinical research findings.
Interest is growing in carbon ion radiation as a treatment for deadly cancers, including head and neck cancers; bone and soft-tissue tumors; and lung, prostate, rectal, and pancreatic cancers, conference organizers said. The so-called “heavy ion” modality may be more precisely targeted to tumors than other radiotherapies, and for well-suited patients the approach destroys the DNA of cancer cells, foiling their replication with minimal damage to surrounding tissues.
“The Japanese have been treating humans with carbon ion radiation for two decades, but it takes a long time for the data to come out that show this is really effective,” said Jac A. Nickoloff, a conference organizer and head of the CSU Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. “The latest data are amazing, and I think a lot of eyes will be opened during the conference. We really are on a cusp with new treatment options.”
Options could expand as a result of international scientific collaboration: The partners are actively seeking U.S. cancer patients who could be candidates for first-time transfer to Japan for carbon ion radiotherapy.
An organization called Emergency Assistance Japan has committed to underwriting the cost for the first U.S. cancer patients to travel to Japan for carbon ion radiotherapy, CSU officials said. That cost could amount to $70,000 for a patient and accompanying family member.
Project leaders at NIRS and the two Colorado universities also are exploring how they might construct an unprecedented facility in Denver that would encompass cancer research, clinical training, animal cancer treatment, and human cancer treatment, all centered on carbon ion radiation and all integrated under one roof.
It is a big idea with a hefty price tag, yet project leaders think such a facility makes sense for Colorado, given world-renowned expertise at CSU in radiation health studies and animal cancer; strong ties to NIRS; leading expertise at CU and Colorado Children’s Hospital in adult and pediatric cancer treatment; a commitment at the two universities to translational research that advances animal and human health; and a patient base at highly respected area hospitals.
The goals with carbon ion radiotherapy have developed from a five-year research partnership between NIRS and CSU scientists, who have worked diligently to close research gaps and recently joined with CU to further investigate the treatment option. The partnership is yielding a robust exchange of cancer research and education, with clinical services for U.S. cancer patients as a clear next step.
“These partnerships illustrate the important work of public research universities in creating new knowledge,” said Mark Stetter, dean of the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Our collaborations in cancer and radiation health sciences could lead to breakthroughs that help animal and human cancer patients, and improve lives for many years to come.”
Among other concrete outcomes from work with Japan, a CSU team in radiological health sciences was named a NIRS research unit and landed a $350,000 grant for studies with Japanese collaborators. Nickoloff gained the title of Distinguished Foreign Scientist with the NIRS Particle Therapy Molecular Target Research Unit, an affiliation that has opened the door to multiple trips to Japan for CSU researchers and graduate students in radiological health.
“This work is allowing us to drive the front line of research in cancer radiation therapies,” Nickoloff said. “Where will this all end up? We don’t really know; that’s what this partnership is all about.”
View more information about the radiation oncology symposium.