Discoveries in physics have helped
forge dramatic advances in cancer
treatment for over a century. In
1950-54, according to the National
Cancer Institute, the five-year survival
rate for all cancers was 35 percent; by
2000 it was 59 percent. With early
detection and treatment, the five-year
survival rate for screenable cancers is
now 80 percent.
When Ernest Lawrence and his brother John, a physician, treated
their mother's cancer with neutrons in 1938, they were taking a new
path just as others had with other forms of radiation. Within months
of the discovery of X-rays in late 1895, therapists began treating
countless ailments with Wilhelm Roentgen's "new light." By January
of 1896, Emil Grubbe in Chicago was already treating two cancer
patients. By trade, Grubbe was an electrician and metallurgist.
Now, accelerators producing X-rays and electrons for radiation
therapy can be found at virtually every major medical center in the
U.S. planned and operated by medical physicists, with treatment
administered by radiation oncologists. Once an experiment, then a
treatment of last resort, radiation therapy has evolved into the
treatment of choice for many cancers. Particle accelerators have an
integral role in today's cancer therapy.
Fermilab's Neutron Therapy Facility
has the highest energy and the
deepest penetration of any fast
neutron beam in the United States.
Fast-moving neutrons are effective
against large tumors. Chicago-area
radiation oncologists Lionel Cohen
and Frank Hendrickson worked with
Fermilab Director Robert R. Wilson
to build the Neutron Therapy Facility.
Cohen served as the first NTF
director, and the first patients were
treated on September 7, 1976. More than 3,100 patients have been
treated in 25 years.
Robert R.Wilson, Fermilab's founding director, first
proposed using protons for cancer therapyin a 1946
paper, "Radiological Use of Fast Protons" (Radiology
47:487-491, 1946). Wilson, then at Harvard's
Research Laboratory of Physics, wrote: "The range of
a 125 MeV proton in tissue is 12 cm., while that of a
200 MeV proton is 27 cm. It is clear that such protons can penetrate
to any part of the body."
One of Fermilab's first employees, Don
Young, helped plan and build the Neutron
Therapy Facility. When he was diagnosed
with prostate cancer in October 2000, he
chose neutron therapy over surgery.
"Knowing and understanding the neutron
treatment method, the facility at Fermilab,
the people here and the number of patients they've treated, it was
an easy decision to make," he said.
The proton accelerator for Loma Linda
University Medical Center in California
was assembled and tested at Fermilab,
then dismantled and shipped to Loma
Center uses the world's first proton
accelerator built specifically to administer
proton therapy in a medical environment. The
synchrotron accelerator was built at Fermilab
and shipped to Loma Linda, where the first
patients were treated in 1990. Since then,
more than 6,000 patients have been treated.
Loma Linda researchers are now intensifying their efforts to apply
proton therapy to breast cancer.
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.