The UW has been a leader in the development of the clinical cyclotron and the use of neutron beams to treat cancer. This system has revolutionized the treatment of several kinds of cancer, eliminating the need for surgery in many cases and dramatically increasing the rates at which tumors can be eradicated.
The National Cancer Institute first began supporting research in this field with the approval of a grant to the UW in 1971.1 At first, scientists had to modify cyclotrons (devices that accelerate atomic particles and direct them toward a target), used in physics research laboratories, for medical use. Those modified machines were used in initial testing at the UW and at a group of affiliated centers around the country. Later, clinical trials were conducted using new machines and by 1991, all of those studies were completed.
This $70-million project, spanning 20 years, involved the construction or modification of 10 neutron facilities across the country and the treatment of thousands of patients. "It is the largest radiation research effort in the history of the NCI," writes Thomas Griffin, UW professor and founding chairman of the UW Department of Radiation Oncology. Griffin and colleagues initiated patient treatments at the UW using high-energy neutron beams in the fall of 1984. Since that time, over 2,700 patients have participated in those studies.
Griffin and colleagues have found fast neutron radiation therapy to be the treatment of choice for salivary gland tumors that cannot be completely removed by surgery without damaging the facial nerve. They also find the approach to be effective in the treatment of prostate cancer as well as sarcomas of soft tissue, bone and cartilage.