by William Orem
understand the Midwest Proton Radiation
Institute at the IU Cyclotron Facility
in Bloomington, you need to know a little about what radiation is, or more to
the point, what it is not.
It is not what the atomic scare movies of the
1950s taught us: a universal evil turning insects, plants, and people into monsters.
Quite the opposite. At the interface between modern physics and modern medicine,
the bugbear of the Cold War generation has become at least partly a beacon of
possibility for their children.
The term radiation does not designate
a single thing, but a class of things. Sunlight is a type of radiation, as are
the invisible waves picked up by your radio antenna and turned into an audio
signal. Neither is radiation uncontrollable or unnatural. Radiation of various
sorts is safely utilized by modern technology, such as the kind that cooks your
dinner inside the microwave oven. A good quantity of the earth itself is radioactive,
and another form of radiation from spacecosmic raysis thought to
play a critical part in the evolution of new species on our planet. In this
sense, without radiation we would not exist at all.
But certain types of radiation most certainly are dangerous, especially because of their capacity to cause cancer. Sunlight is a good example, a fact to which anyone who has had a melanoma can attest.
|John M. Cameron is professor of physics and director of the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility, a national research center in Bloomington, Ind. Photo Tyagan Miller.|
As a therapeutic tool, then, radiation has
been a classic double-edged sword: tantalizingly powerful, yet difficult to
wield in the presence of the all-too-fragile human body. Which is exactly why
John Cameron and an IU team at the MPRI are working to increase the amount of
control doctors have.
There is a good marriage between medicine
and physics here at IU, says Cameron, director of the IUCF. And that marriage
is making possible a new technique whereby radiation is not enemy but ally,
not the cause of cancer, but a novel part of the cure.
The new technique going on at the IUCF in Bloomington
is called proton therapy.
In a fundamental sense, though, it isnt really new. Radiation in the form
of high-energy electromagnetic waveswhat we call light when it is in the
lower frequency range to which our eyes reacthas been used as a tool against
cancer for several decades. What makes proton therapy different is its use of
protons rather than photons, a distinction that may escape a nonspecialist but
could make all the difference.
Despite the similar-sounding names, protons
and photons are separate entities in the subatomic world. A photon is a particle
of light, sometimes thought of as a tiny packet of energy. It moves, not surprisingly,
at the speed of light and can be of differing frequencies, depending on how
much energy is contained in the packet itself. Look around you for something
red and then something blue. The photons hitting your eye in the latter instance
are higher energy than in the former.
A proton, on the other hand, is one of the
two major components of an atomic nucleus (neutrons are the other). Unlike photons,
protons are massive and have a positive charge. They dont naturally move
at light speed, but they can be sped up close to the light-speed limit. The
closer they come, the greater their energy. Such coaxing is done in an accelerator.
|A 77-ton magnet was used to control the original cyclotron at Indiana University. The cyclotron, completed in 1941, was housed in IU Bloomington's Swain Hall. Photo IU Archives.|
A cyclotron, such as the one at IUB, is a few gigantic and powerful magnets that permit ions (charged particles such as the proton) to be accelerated in an ever-widening spiral until they fly out of the cyclotron itself. The protons start in the form of a bottle of hydrogen gas and are moving at what Cameron calls thermal velocity: a paltry few meters per second. When they exit the machine, their velocity has been increased to 60 percent of the speed of light. To get a sense of how much of an increase in energy is imparted in this process, consider that light moves at 186,000 miles per secondfast enough, in an unimpeded journey, to leave your hand now and have reached the moon by now.
Now think of a cancerous growth. In essence,
a tumor is the result of cell division run amok. In a localized region, cancerous
cells begin multiplying without restraint. The natural self-regulating system
can be shut down, and cells that are already reproducing inappropriately refuse
to die off. The result is a growing mass in the body, dangerous in itself, and
especially so when it holds out the possibility of passing pieces of disruptive
tissue through the blood or lymphatic system, allowing them to circulate and
take hold elsewhere (the process known as metastasizing).
Such lumps of growth are known as cancers because
they reminded the physicians of ancient Greece of the hard shells of crabs.
For much of the two-and-a-half millennia since those ancient times, nothing
could be done about the appearance of these mysterious killers. It was not until
the late twentieth century that advances in surgical technique, sterilization,
and anesthetization made physical removal of the growths a possibility. But
the danger remains high, and the emotional costs potentially even higher. The
search for other less radical and less invasive methods of destroying tumors
led to the advent of controlled radiation.
Traditionally, doctors have used this technology
to try to bombard a tumor with a concentrated beam of high-energy photons known
as X-rays. As an X-ray of a broken limb shows, this kind of radiation is able
to pass into and through the body, being absorbed more or less by areas of greater
or lesser density. The sustained collision of these photons with cancerous tissue
can disrupt and kill the cells without having to surgically remove them from
X-rays pack a punch, but they do not focus
well. Much of the energy they deliver misses the mark and damages healthy tissue
around the tumor. Imagine a line of soldiers in a brigade. One of the soldiers
is a traitor. If left to his own devices, he will destroy the entire brigade.
It is possible to kill the traitor by hurling rocks at him from a distance,
but to remove the traitor in this way is to risk striking and injuring good
soldiers on either side of the bad.
This danger has been one of the greatest drawbacks
of radiation therapy. If the tumor is near a vital organ, the spillage
of X-rays can be unacceptable. In pediatric cases especially, the damage caused
to healthy growing cells can be heartbreaking. There comes a time when the danger
posed by the treatment threatens to be as great as the illness it is intended
Proton therapy, Cameron explains, eschews the
use of X-rays altogether. Instead, the stones being thrown at cancerous
cells are accelerated protons. An accelerated proton has a much more focused
energy distribution pattern than an X-ray. It slows down upon entering the body,
so it still gives off energy in healthy tissue that should in principle be left
alone, but the slowdown is part of an overall pattern of energy loss that gives
its biggest kick at the endjust before the proton is halted altogether.
This peak release of energy, called the Bragg peak, is something like the detonation
of tiny explosives. The energy lost in travelling toward the Bragg peak is relatively
small compared to the blast delivered at the peak itself.
This facet of proton behavior makes protons excellent tumor fighters. The amount of energy in the beam of protons can be controlled, which determines the depth in the tissue where the Bragg peak will occur. When that point is aligned with the tumor itself, the proton beam delivers a series of micro-explosions mainly inside the cancerous mass, with little in the surrounding tissue areas. The increase in the damage done to the target and the reduction of damage done elsewhere make protons as much as ten times more effective, by some measures, than traditional photons. With X-rays, scientists and doctors could at best launch a volley of stones in the general direction of the traitorous soldier, sacrificing some of those around him in the attempt. With a proton delivery beam, the IU team is more like David using a single rock to bring down Goliath.
|Technicians work on the IU cyclotron shortly after it was installed on the Bloomington campus in 1975. Photo IU Archives.|
cyclotron at IUB has been up and running since 1975. In 1999, however, the pure
physics work was moved to a newly completed
synchrotron (a variant version of particle accelerator). The cyclotron has been
rededicated as a tool used for proton therapy, and much of the site itself is
being reconstructed as a clinic, with three treatment rooms in the works.
The cancer scenario is instructive, but the
potential applications for proton therapy extend well beyond cancer treatment,
as Cameron is the first to acknowledge. In cooperation with IUs Schools
of Optometry and Medicine,
trials are also being run in areas ranging from treating macular degeneration
in the eye to an NIH-funded program to help a damaged heart revascularize itself.
Many facilities dedicated to proton therapy
are being developed throughout the country. A team from Massachusetts General
Hospital, who pioneered proton therapy in the United States using a cyclotron
at Harvard University, will soon move to a new facility at MGH. The Loma Linda
University Medical Center in California, operational since 1991, treats about
800 patients a year. New accelerators being built around the world will have
different capacities and may specialize in different treatments. Most likely,
some will specialize in novel applications that have yet even to be imagined.
I like to see projects going on like the one in cardiology, Cameron says with enthusiasm. There are lots of ways to use protons.