CSU plan presents new hope for U.S. cancer patients

Picture of a patient and doctor in a carbon-ion treatment room

Colorado cancer researchers and medical doctors on Wednesday announced they are launching a $200,000 feasibility study as a key step to building the nation’s first carbon-ion radiotherapy research and treatment facility in Aurora, where they and colleagues hope to investigate and provide to patients leading-edge radiation therapy that is effective against the deadliest cancers and now is available only in Europe and Japan.

The collaborators will meet Thursday morning on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, site of the proposed research and treatment facility, to discuss their plans. The center they envision would cost an estimated $300 million.

CSU collaborators Jac Nickoloff, far left, and Max Matsuura, far right, have worked with partners Dr. Hirohiko Tsujii and Dr. Tadeshi Kamada on the carbon-ion project.
CSU collaborators Jac Nickoloff, far left, and Max Matsuura, far right, have worked with partners Dr. Hirohiko Tsujii and Dr. Tadeshi Kamada on the carbon-ion project.

The project’s collaborators include world-renowned cancer experts at CU and Colorado State University. They have signed a memorandum of understanding to pursue the project with University of Colorado Health’s Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and with carbon-ion radiotherapy pioneers at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) in Japan, the first nation in the world to build a facility of this kind.

“Cancer experts at CSU have worked for several years with colleagues at the CU School of Medicine and NIRS to explore the possibility of a carbon-ion research and treatment facility in Denver. We’ve also discussed the concept with state and federal leaders and policy makers,” said Dr. Mark Stetter, dean of the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “It’s clear that our collaboration offers distinct advantages for an international carbon-ion center that would provide truly needed help for animal and human cancer patients.”

Project benefits

The Colorado collaborators said their project offers notable benefits, including:

  • partnership with Japanese experts who have more than 20 years of success with carbon-ion radiotherapy treatment;
  • expertise at the CU Cancer Center, designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute and boasting more than 400 faculty members;
  • a home base on the new and advanced Anschutz Medical Campus, which provides leading adult and children’s oncology research and treatment;
  • a patient transfer pilot project between Poudre Valley Hospital and NIRS, which will provide U.S. cancer patients with treatment options as the permanent facility is developed;
  • leading radiation research and training programs at CSU; and
  • renowned companion animal oncology work at the CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center.

Helping people and animals

The Flint Animal Cancer Center is internationally known for treating cats and dogs with naturally occurring cancer. This work provides critical knowledge that, compared to cancer-treatment models developed in rodents, is often more easily and successfully replicated in human cancer studies and treatment. The approach, known as “translational medicine,” is a cornerstone of the Colorado proposal and would effectively use carbon-ion radiotherapy to help animals and people with cancer.

“As we’ve seen since 2008, when the CU Anschutz Medical Campus became fully up and running, state-of-the-art medical research and treatment facilities are an advantage to the entire region because they help patients while also generating scientific knowledge, innovation and economic development,” said Dr. Richard Krugman, vice chancellor for health affairs for the University of Colorado Denver and dean of the CU School of Medicine. “We’re excited to be part of a collaboration that will offer one-of-a-kind carbon-ion research and treatment here in Colorado.”

A more precise treatment

Dr. Miho Scott, medical oncologist with University of Colorado Health who is leading the patient transfer part of the carbon-ion project, speaking with a woman.
Dr. Miho Scott, medical oncologist with University of Colorado Health, is leading the patient transfer part of the carbon-ion project.

The race is on to bring the first carbon-ion facility to the United States to offer next-generation cancer radiation to patients, particularly those with deadly, therapy-resistant tumors that cannot be treated with traditional radiotherapy without significant damage to other tissues and organs.

Carbon ions, compared to the protons and photons traditionally used in radiotherapy, are more precisely targeted to tumors and have been shown to cause minimal damage to normal tissues en route to tumors, said Jac Nickoloff, a radiation researcher and head of the CSU Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

Carbon-ion radiotherapy is also notable for creating more lethal damage to DNA in tumor cells – making it effective in killing tumors that are resistant to traditional therapies. Studies show that carbon-ion radiation is safe, well-tolerated by patients and works on many types of cancer with few side effects, Nickoloff said.

Money for the feasibility study comes from CU, CSU and key university units involved in the project.

An urgent need

The collaborators noted an urgent need for new and more effective approaches to cancer treatment in the United States. There are 1.6 million cancer cases and nearly 600,000 cancer deaths in the nation each year. Cancer is now the country’s No. 2 killer, after heart disease, and it is expected to become the No. 1 killer by 2030 because of the aging U.S. population.

Patients who may benefit from carbon-ion radiotherapy treatment have the opportunity to join the patient transfer program.

“The program will allow us to send our patients that qualify to Japan for this treatment,” said Dr. Miho Scott, medical oncologist with University of Colorado Health and team lead for patient transfer. “Once approved, travel and medical care are coordinated through our program.”

For eligibility, call (970) 237-7700.