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U.S. Center for Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy Research

UT Southwestern Radiation Oncology team members leading a Texas consortium of researchers to establish the country's first National Center for Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy.

UT Southwestern Medical Center is leading a Texas consortium of researchers to establish the country’s first National Center for Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy that could provide clinical care and research using heavy particles for innovative new cancer treatments.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health awarded UT Southwestern a $1 million planning grant to develop research proposals for the center.

“UT Southwestern is committed to being a national leader in developing new technologies that will improve patient outcomes through the nexus of research and clinical care,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Dr. Hak Choy, Chair and Professor of Radiation Oncology at UT Southwestern, is principal investigator for the Texas award.

“Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy represents the next quantum leap forward in cancer care. It is not available in the U.S., and our location would be the first of its kind in the country,” said Choy, holder of The Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Distinguished Chair in Therapeutic Oncology Research.

“The efficacy of Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy for certain cancers has already been established by foreign institutions, which have conducted clinical trials and found profound increases in overall disease-free survival. However, this therapy needs a more thorough and rigorous scientific approach to uncover its full potential. Additional clinical trials, improvements in accelerator technology, and improvements in understanding the underlying biology are all still critically needed,” said Choy.

In the U.S., more than 50 percent of cancer patients are currently treated using energetic photons, electrons, or protons.

“Heavy Ion Radiation, on the other hand, delivers therapy that is both more potent and more precise than conventional as well as proton therapy,” Dr. Choy said. “It offers treatment to normally radioresistant tumors as well as improved dose conformation with even better sparing of normal tissue structures close to the target. This is important when treating areas that are close to sensitive structures such as the spine and brain, where we want to minimize exposure as much as possible while achieving maximal impact to the tumor.”

The Texas-based consortium consists of researchers from UT Southwestern, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas A&M University, Prairie View A&M University, Baylor College of Medicine, The UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, The UT Medical Branch at Galveston, and NASA, in addition to national and international collaborators. The Texas consortium project, one of two provided the preliminary planning grants, earned a nearly perfect score from the NCI peer-review panel.

“This award speaks to the strength of our program,” Dr. Choy said.

The U.S. pioneered Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1954, but lack of funding shuttered the program in 1993, allowing other countries, fueled by extensive government support, to take the lead. Eight fully operational Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy Centers now exist worldwide in Japan, Germany, Italy, and China. Ten additional centers are in development.

A national center for the U.S. is important to re-establish U.S. prominence in the field and to provide the foundation of research needed to make this type of therapy available to U.S. cancer patients, Dr. Choy said.

“This is the ultimate radiation tool for the cancer patient; however the U.S. is still catching up to the rest of the world,” he said.

Building costs for the National Center for Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy, targeted for completion in 2021, are estimated at $200 million to $250 million, and would need a combination of federal, state, and private funding for construction and ongoing research. Potential economic impact estimates for Texas are more than $600 million, with 130 new high-level jobs created and 2,000 annual out-of-town visitors.

Image credit: UT Southwestern

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