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dimensions of particle physics

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The gift of beam: Neutron therapy restarts at Fermilab

January 03, 2013

The gift of beam: Neutron therapy restarts at Fermilab

With a new power source operating at Fermilab's accelerator complex, the laboratory reopened its cancer treatment facility over the holidays.

Amid the forest of wires and machines in Fermilab's Linac Gallery is a small, windowless room accessible only through a sliding steel door. With wood-paneled walls and a couple of white, synthetic orchids in full bloom, the room seems like it belongs in a home from the 1960s and not among the complex technology of a national accelerator laboratory.

Yet the room, part of Fermilab's Neutron Therapy Facility, would not exist without the lab's linear accelerator, since it is a place where patients with certain types of cancer go for high-energy neutron treatments. Once a patient is inside, the entire room descends four feet, revealing a baseball-sized opening in the wall through which neutrons travel.

When the Cockcroft-Walton generators that powered Fermilab’s accelerator complex went offline last year in August, so too did the neutron source for the treatment facility. However, beam was back up with its new technology in early December, and the facility lost no time in resuming treatment. Their first new patient arrived on Dec. 11 and will complete treatment before the end of January, says Thomas Kroc, director of the Neutron Therapy Facility.

The facility is one of two high-energy neutron treatment facilities in the country. Since it opened in 1976, the Neutron Therapy Facility has treated more than 3000 patients. Dr. Kurubarahalli Saroja, a physician who works at the facility, has treated hundreds of those patients.

"Very few people are doing what we do," Saroja says. "It feels good to be part of this rare entity."

Neutron treatment works best on tumors that are too large for surgical removal but have not spread through enough of the body to require chemotherapy, Kroc says. The most common type of cancer that the Neutron Therapy Facility treats is salivary gland tumors.

In fact, adorning the wall outside of Kroc's office is a before-and-after photo of a patient who underwent treatment for a salivary gland tumor. Before treatment, the tumor was the size of a grapefruit, and after treatment it had reduced to the size of a cherry. The facility is currently treating three patients, two of whom have salivary gland tumors.

While the treatment has continued to be successful over the years, Kroc hopes to improve some of the technology for convenience' sake. Right now, the task of manipulating beam size to target different sized tumors is time-consuming and laborious. However, Kroc is working on a multi-leaf collimator that will allow him to change beam size remotely. He currently has a prototype and hopes to implement this new technology in the near future.

A version of this article appeared in today's issue of Fermilab Today.

Photo by Reidar Hahn, Fermilab