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UC study examines new treatment for cancer

University of Cincinnati researchers are examining how proton therapy can help treat patients with lung, esophageal, liver and breast cancer for better outcomes

Proton radiotherapy is a more targeted way to deliver radiation directly to a tumor, possibly sparing healthy tissues.

UC researchers are studying just how beneficial it can be for patients with various types of cancer via four new clinical trials, unique to the Cincinnati area.

Proton therapy “paints” radiation straight onto the tumor with remarkable precision. It works by extracting positively charged protons from hydrogen gas and accelerating them through a particle accelerator up to nearly two-thirds of the speed of light. The protons are guided to the tumor site by magnetic and electrical fields. They are propelled with just enough energy to reach a precise point in the tumor and then stop before they can harm nearby, noncancerous tissue.

One of the trials, only being offered locally at the UC Medical Center Proton Therapy Center, is looking at this treatment option for midstage lung cancer.

patient in gantry

A gantry, or treatment room, at the UC Medical Center Proton Therapy Center. Photo credit: Colleen Kelley / UC Creative Services

“This clinical trial is being conducted in patients with a common form of lung cancer, who have had standard radiation versus those who have had proton radiation. Both groups will also receive simultaneous chemotherapy,” says Dr. Emily Daugherty, assistant professor of radiation oncology at UC and a UC Health radiation oncologist. “Patients will be randomized to receive either proton or standard radiation and they will be monitored for at least two years to assess cancer control (whether or not it spreads) as well as quality-of-life outcomes and potential side effects.”

“Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death, with an estimated 228,150 new cases to be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019 and about 142,670 expected deaths from lung cancer this year — 80 to 85% of these cases are nonsmall cell type. Radiation therapy is a critical component of treatment, especially in these stages of lung cancer, as most patients are not treated with surgery.”

Daugherty, local principal investigator of the study, further explains that major advancements have been made over the past decade in regard to radiation, which has led to significantly improved outcomes for patients. However, patients can still experience side effects due to the location of their tumors.

“Radiation may negatively impact the normal function of the lungs and the esophagus,” she says. “We want to see if a more targeted approach could eliminate some of these residual problems.”

Daugherty adds that researchers will assess quality-of-life measures for patients, including shortness of breath, sore throat and other breathing-related issues.

“We also want to look at the cost-effectiveness of each treatment and explore the most appropriate and clinically relevant technologies in order to provide patients with the highest standard of care,” she says. “We hope that this trial will provide further insight into the potential benefits of proton therapy for lung cancer and to provide another option for our patients.”

To find out more about this trial or if you may be eligible, call 513-584-0220.

Other trials are being led locally by Dr. Jordan Kharofa, associate professor of radiation oncology, and Dr. Teresa Meier, assistant professor of radiation oncology.

Esophageal cancer

Jordan Kharofa at a computer

Dr. Jordan Kharofa, associate professor of radiation oncology. Photo credit: Colleen Kelley / UC Creative Services

Esophageal cancer is a disease that affects over 18,000 people per year in the United States and over 450,000 worldwide; standard care for this type of cancer is radiation with chemotherapy prior to surgery, with five-year survival rates between 20% and 35%. However, these treatments can lead to lasting side effects that can impact patients’ health and quality of life. Because of the location of most esophageal tumors, the heart and lungs can often be affected. In this trial, researchers will conduct a randomized trial comparing proton therapy to standard radiation to see if proton therapy improves survival for patients and improves outcomes related to lung and heart conditions. 

Liver cancer

Radiation therapy has emerged as a treatment option for patients with hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer with only around 200,000 cases diagnosed per year. As with other similar trials looking at the difference between proton radiation and standard radiation therapy in patient outcomes, this randomized trial will compare overall survival rates for patients with this type of cancer over four years as well as complications from treatment. 

To find out more about these trials or eligibility, call 513-584-7698.

Breast cancer

Teresa Meier in a proton therapy gantry

Teresa Meier, MD, assistant professor of radiation oncology. Photo credit: Colleen Kelley / UC Creative Services

Nearly 3 million women are living with breast cancer in the United States, and radiation therapy is used for a number of these cases. Because of radiation exposure to the heart during treatment, radiotherapy carries increased risks of cardiovascular illness and death — survivors who undergo radiation have a least a two-fold increased risk of it. Proton therapy, by reducing the amount of heart and lung tissue exposed to radiation in the treatment of breast cancer, has the potential to lessen damage. However, proton therapy is more expensive and has yet to show improved health outcomes for patients with breast cancer. This randomized clinical trial will evaluate whether or not patients undergoing treatment for breast cancer experience cardiovascular issues following treatment, as well as their overall quality of life and cancer recurrences. 

To find out more about this trial or eligibility, call 513-584-7847. A second trial is looking at cosmetic outcomes in women undergoing of proton therapy.

Feature photo credit: Colleen Kelley / UC Creative Services