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Health Watch: New Radiation Therapy Acts Like GPS For Lung Cancer

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – A new therapy for lung cancer is sparing normal lung tissue while hitting the tumor with killing doses of radiation.

CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez says it's kind of like GPS for lung tumors.

This new technology tells doctors and the linear accelerator producing the radiation beam, exactly where the cancer is in a patient's lung.

That's key because you only want to irradiate the tumor and it keeps moving when the patient breathes.

"I had a slight cough with a little mucus," lung cancer patient Larry D'ercole.

That cough and some unexplained weight loss was enough to get 83-year-old Larry D'ercole's doctor to look further. A series of tests and scans revealed a small tumor in the upper lobe of Larry's left lung. Now what?

"I didn't want surgery. I've had complications," he said.

The other option was radiation, but as Dr. David Dubin points out, irradiating a lung tumor is tricky.

"The lung is very sensitive to radiation and it's moving with every breath so the tumor is moving and the chest is full of important structures, heart, spinal cord, food tube," the chief of radiation oncology at Englewood Health explained.

That's where this calypso radiation system comes in. It's a sophisticated combination of technologies that allows doctors to track exactly where the tumor is in real time.

Calypso radiation beam cancer therapy. (Credit: CBS2)

First three locator antennas are placed via a lung scope around the tumor. Then when the patient is in the radiation therapy suite, the calypso machine is tracking the tumor 25 times a second.

If breathing moves the tumor outside the radiation beam, the beam instantly shuts down. When the tumor moves back into the target zone, the beam reactivates.

Calypso radiation beam cancer therapy. (Credit: CBS2)

Medical physicist Dr. Michael Speiser showed CBS2 Larry's tumor and one of the locator antennas on an x-ray.

"That spares healthy tissue but confirms that we're hitting the target," Speiser said.

The calypso beam and the table both move around, hitting the tumor from all sides to deliver a maximum killing dose to the tumor in just three sessions, one week apart.

"We know it works 90 percent of the time, we see the tumor shrink," Dr. Durbin said.

Larry just finished his third treatment and is no worse for wear.

"I feel fine. A little tired but I'm 83 and I still bounce around," D'ercole said.

The key to success with the calypso, as it is with all medical procedures, is using it on the right patient. It's meant for patients like Larry with small early stage tumors or patients who are too sick to have lung surgery making radiation is their only option.

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