May 14, 1999 By Victoria White
GAINESVILLE, Fla.---Working only on nights and weekends, University of Florida scientists developed one of the world’s most accurate systems for targeting radiation therapy to brain tumors.
Their experiments had to be done after-hours because an expensive piece of equipment they needed was booked virtually every weekday for treating Shands HealthCare patients.
Beginning this month, however, scientists at the UF Brain Institute can use their own linear accelerator, a $750,000 machine that produces high energy X-rays to treat cancer and other anomalies.
Though linear accelerators are common in cancer treatment centers, UF apparently is the only university in the world to have one dedicated to research. Varian Associates Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif., the leading manufacturer of medical accelerators and related radiotherapy products, donated the machine to UF, which built a special vault to house it.
“This machine provides graphic proof that Varian and the other industrial partners who are helping with still more equipment have a very high opinion of and expectations for the new UFBI research program,” said William Luttge, executive director of the UFBI, a campuswide entity that brings together more than 200 researchers interested in brain and nervous system sciences.
He also noted that the addition of the machine, along with the adjacent support lab and computer facilities, completes the RadioSurgery/Biology Lab in the UFBI building, a $60 million facility that opened last fall.
While the new equipment clearly pleases UF scientists, its arrival also bodes well for the development of improved cancer treatment.
“Before, when we had an experiment to do, we would spend probably 50 percent of our evenings and weekends setting it up and tearing it down so that the Shands’ linear accelerator would be ready to treat patients the next day,” said Frank J. Bova, a professor of neurosurgery in UF’s College of Medicine. “It’s been a very inefficient way to develop new treatments, but that’s how everyone does it worldwide.”
The new linear accelerator also will allow faculty to conduct more realistic experiments.
“Most radiation therapy is given once or twice a day, five days a week for four to six weeks,” Bova said. “But it’s been very difficult to do experiments exploring how normal tissue reacts to this arrangement if you don’t have ongoing access to a machine. Now we will be able to use the same type of radiation delivery schedules that we would expect to use in patient care.”
More than a decade ago, Bova and Dr. William A. Friedman, chair of UF’s neurological surgery department, developed the University of Florida Radiosurgery System, also known as the LINAC Scalpel. The patented UF system adds to the standard linear accelerator a device for positioning the patient and computer software to produce a tenfold improvement in the accuracy of radiation delivered to targets in the head.
The LINAC Scalpel currently is used in more than 60 treatment centers around the world. At UF, it has been used to treat more than 1,300 patients and is expected to be deployed in the care of 300 more people this year.
In the coming year, the UFBI team, which includes Dr. John Buatti, associate professor of radiation oncology, Sanford Meeks, assistant professor of radiation oncology, a computer programmer and other support personnel, hopes to begin using their expertise to develop technologies for targeting radiation elsewhere in the body.
“To do that, we need to develop different systems to guide the radiation,” Bova said. “How you find a liver metastasis is very different from how you find a brain metastasis. You don’t have the rigid skull to use as your reference system. A lot of our research right now is aimed at figuring out what types of imaging devices we need to guide us to these new targets.”
For patients, precise radiation guidance can result in major differences in quality of life.
“When we are able to precisely align the radiation beams to the target site in the body, we can treat a small volume of tissue and exclude more normal tissue. This results in fewer side effects,” Bova said. “Better targeting also allows us to increase the radiation doses in hopes of increasing cure rates.”
Faculty also plan to use the new accelerator to explore experimental strategies that combine radiation therapy with other forms of treatment.
“The accelerator will enable us to further our studies examining the interaction between radiation and drug compounds that launch an indirect attack on tumors by interfering with their blood supply,” said Dietmar W. Siemann, professor of radiation oncology.
Recent UF Health Science Center news releases are available at http://www.health.ufl.edu/hscc/index.html
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