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Health Information Targeting Tumors With Searing Precision

If you're planning to grill on the porch or swim in Lake Michigan this summer, you can thank solar radiation — or sunshine — for the heat that makes those activities so enjoyable. But not every kind of radiation — energy emitted in waves and particles — involves heat.

During radiation therapy, for example, rays of energy are beamed directly at a patient's tumor. A standard treatment for many kinds of cancer, this radiation works not by generating heat but by destroying the DNA of cancer cells.

Maximize benefits, minimize risks
Like the solar radiation that warms our Earth but can also burn our skin, radiation therapy has benefits and risks.

"While maximizing the dose they deliver to a tumor, doctors must also protect healthy tissue from potential damage," explains Aidnag Diaz, MD, a radiation oncologist at Rush University Medical Center.

In pursuit of this goal, physicians and researchers have continually worked to develop more refined ways of administering radiation. At Rush, Diaz and his colleagues recently began using one of the most advanced methods yet: a new machine that measures its targets in increments of less than a millimeter, administering radiation more precisely than ever before to tumors in the brain, lung, liver, prostate and other areas where sparing surrounding tissue is crucial.

'Cooking' with speed and accuracy
The machine, called TrueBeam STX, is the most powerful of its kind, taking one-third of the time that previous machines took to deliver the same dose of radiation. This makes the treatment safer and more effective by increasing patients' comfort and decreasing the chance they will move during treatment. Even the smallest change in a patient's position can shift the intended target of radiation, so TrueBeam also uses advanced imaging and mathematical models to predict and respond to the involuntary movements of internal organs.

Though this process doesn't use heat, it has similarities with summer grilling. "As heat does to food when you cook, radiation changes the chemical makeup of cancer cells," Diaz says. "In a sense, we're ‘cooking' the cells, not with heat but by changing their chemistry in a way that prevents their DNA from dividing, growing and living."

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