New era of radiation therapy to fight cancer

This article is an excerpt from the research magazine “Tackling Global Issues vol.2 New Era of Radiation Therapy to Fight Cancer.” Click here to see the table of contents.


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Cell proliferation, a property essential to life, sometimes puts life itself at risk. Modern medicine has waged a constant battle against cells that proliferate aggressively and uncontrollably, which can eventually spread throughout the entire body invading normal tissues: cancer.

Conquering cancer is of special importance to aging societies such as Japan, where government records show that the disease has been the number one cause of death since 1981. In 2016, about 370,000 people died of cancer, accounting for 28.5 percent of the deaths in the country. According to the World Health Organization, in 2016 tracheal, bronchial, and lung cancers were among the top 10 causes of death worldwide.

In the global fight against cancer, Hokkaido University is one of the world’s leading institutions. The university’s proton therapy system employs real-time tumor-tracking technology capable of treating patients with cancers that “move” due to respiration and other bodily movements – cases that have long been regarded as difficult, if not impossible, to treat. Combined with spot-scanning proton beam technology developed by Hitachi, Ltd., this therapy is seen as one of the most advanced methods for delivering radiation to tumors with sub-millimeter precision and reduced side effects. This state-of-the-art technology was developed as part of a national project conducted under the leadership of Hokkaido University Professor Hiroki Shirato.

The use of particle beams to treat cancer was first proposed in 1946 by Robert Wilson, an American physicist. In 1955, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory began clinical research into proton beam therapy, and in 1961 Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory and Massachusetts General Hospital started treating cancer patients with proton beams. In Japan, clinical research began at the National Institute of Radiological Science in 1979 and at Tsukuba University in 1983. In 1998, National Cancer Center Hospital East became the first hospital-based institution to provide cancer treatment using proton beams. Since then, the number of proton beam therapy facilities has grown rapidly, totaling 17 facilities in Japan and more than 50 facilities worldwide as of 2018, with numbers expecting to increase in the coming years.

Since its development, radiation therapy, including proton therapy, has become one of the four major methods used to treat cancer, along with surgery, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Hokkaido University’s proton beam therapy is seen as one of the world’s leading radiotherapy methods, and has treated approximately 300 patients since 2014.

Hokkaido University, now in collaboration with Stanford University and other institutions, is continuing to develop improved cancer therapies using proton beams and other forms of radiation. This special feature provides a glimpse into some of the university’s latest efforts to improve real-time tumor monitoring, along with research on the biological effects of proton beams and the development of individualized treatment plans for cancer patients.

Click here to see the table of contents.

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