Today, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy (DOE) are each announcing the selection of several new research awards to advance particle beam therapies for the treatment of cancer. Particle beam approaches use directed protons — or heavier ions, such as carbon ions — to target and kill cancerous tissue. Because the delivered particles interact strongly with tissue at a certain distance within the body that depends on the energy of the beam, the damage to surrounding healthy tissue can be minimized, offering an important possible alternative or supplement to more conventional radiotherapy (using x-rays or gamma rays), chemotherapy, and surgery. At present, there are 14 proton therapy centers in the United States; there are only a few carbon ion therapy facilities worldwide, but none are in the United States. The NCI awards announced today support planning for the establishment of a Center for Particle Beam Radiation Therapy as a national research resource, and the DOE awards address development of improved hardware that could shrink the size, increase the maneuverability, and considerably reduce the steep costs of particle beam therapy equipment.
The Planning Grant awards for the national research center are being made by NCI. The planned center would serve as a research adjunct to an independently created and funded, sustainable clinical facility for particle beam radiation therapy. Ultimately, the proposed center is expected to perform clinically relevant research using ion beams. The planning grants include pilot projects that will enable a research agenda in particle beam delivery systems, dosimetry, radiation biology, and/or translational pre-clinical studies. NCI encourages other researchers to collaborate with the awardees in advancing the capabilities for particle beam therapies.
The DOE awards are being made under the Accelerator Stewardship Program. The machinery needed to produce and control particle beams, such as synchrotrons, cyclotrons, and related beam delivery systems, is expensive and complex. This machinery, however, can be used in a variety of fields, ranging from high-energy physics to materials science to medical treatment. The DOE program has the responsibility for long-term, fundamental research and development of such instrumentation. The new efforts will support improvements in the generation of the accelerated particles and in the powerful magnets that direct the charged particle beams, aiming to make these key components smaller, lighter, more versatile, and potentially less expensive.
DOE and NCI collaboration on this topic has included a cosponsored workshop on ion beam therapy that helped to define needs and challenges of the field. Continued teamwork across Federal agencies with related but distinct missions and expertise, including the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Energy, will contribute greatly to researching the potential benefits and advancing the practicality of particle beam approaches to cancer treatment.
Altaf H. (Tof) Carim is Assistant Director for Research Infrastructure at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy