Cancer Patients May Soon Be Able to Get an Entire Course of Radiation in Less Than 1 Second

Currently, cancer patients who require radiation therapy may have to return to their cancer center for treatment several times a week for five to eight weeks or even longer in order to complete their course of radiation and have the best possible chance at a favorable outcome. This time-consuming process can be difficult for many reasons, including the distance of the patient from the treatment center, the time that the patient must take off work, and the time the patient must spend dealing with painful side effects and feeling too ill to enjoy their life.

However, researchers at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania are working on a radiation treatment option that would fix all of these problems. The team has found a way, in theory, to use proton radiation to generate an entire course’s worth of radiation at one time—in less than a second, in fact.

The treatment, known as FLASH radiotherapy, is still experimental and is not being used on patients yet, but it has been shown to have the same effect on tumors as traditional photon radiation. And, because of its much shorter duration, it does not appear to cause any of the harmful side effects that patients struggle with when undergoing traditional radiation treatment.

“This is the first time anyone has published findings that demonstrate the feasibility of using protons—rather than electrons—to generate FLASH doses, with an accelerator currently used for clinical treatments,” said the study’s co-senior author James M. Metz, director of the Roberts Proton Therapy Center and chair of radiation oncology.

Previously, research teams have generated similar doses of radiation, but the electron methods they used were unable to penetrate deeply enough into the body. Other research teams have used more traditional photons, but the available treatment devices do not have the capability to deliver a high enough dose in such a short amount of time.

FLASH radiotherapy, on the other hand, has the potential to be just as effective as traditional radiation treatment while also cutting treatment time down to almost no time at all. The technique should be able to be delivered using current radiotherapy machines with some technical modifications. Not needing new machines will drastically reduce the cost of producing this new treatment.

The research team is working on developing a plan for translating their laboratory work into a clinical environment and optimizing their delivery system. Their work is published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, and Physics.

How would an entire course of radiotherapy delivered in just one second change your life or the life of someone you love? Let us know in the comments.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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