It's not science fiction, it's radiosurgery. Instead of cutting into a patient to remove a tumor, doctors use highly focused radiation therapy to zap the unhealthy tissue.
Researchers at Henry Ford Health Systems in Detroit and BrainLab have developed a new procedure called intensity-modulated spinal radiosurgery to help patients with very hard-to-treat spinal tumors.
Forty-five patients have been treated with the new therapy, says the lead researcher, Fang-Fang Yin, a physicist from Henry Ford Health Systems who presented the findings yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine in Montreal.
The biggest concern with spinal tumors, Yin says, is that if you give too high a dose of radiation to the spine, a patient can be left paralyzed.
"The new technique can localize the radiation dose more precisely to the tumor," Yin adds. That spares the healthy tissue in the spine and reduces the chance of side effects. Patients only require one treatment, and see improvement in as little as two weeks, he says.
In the study, Yin and his colleagues were not trying to cure the cancer, but wanted to improve the patients' quality of life by reducing pain and improving function.
"As time goes by, we will know more, and maybe we can cure some of these tumors," Yin adds. Some of the patients have been followed for up to six months, although he says it would be ideal if they could be followed for at least a year.
"This is like what they described on 'Star Trek.' We could only envision treatments like this in the 1970s," says Dr. Paul Okunieff, chairman of radiation oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
"The spinal cord treatment is very exciting, because you can't shave tumors off the spinal cord with traditional surgery," Okunieff adds.
He says intensity-modulated radiotherapy is already being used at his center, and it could be used in many more hospitals. Researchers will probably come up with many more uses for this therapy, Okunieff adds.
What To Do
For more information on radiosurgery, go to The American Association of Neurological Surgeons. And this article from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Tulsa offers more detail about intensity-modulated radiosurgery.