MIT opens cancer research facility

In an effort to increase hope for cancer patients, nuclear medicine researchers and officials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology yesterday commissioned the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory’s new cancer therapy center.

The facility, called the Fission Converter Epithermal Neutron Irradiation facility, provides cellular radiotherapy through the use of epithermal neutron beams, which kill cancerous cells by raising the temperature within them.

The facility, presently considered the best of its kind, will double the average therapeutic ratio of the epithermal neutron beam and increase useful penetration by one-third. It will do so in less time than the older versions of the reactor.

“The history of neutrons in patient therapy is not a story of success,” said Dr. Robert Zaminof of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

But, with the creation of the center, that is expected to change and give health care professionals, scientists, engineers and patients reason to celebrate.

The complex process will attack cancer cells more closely and efficiently than past procedures have, according to attending scientists.

“There are unlimited possibilities [with this new technology] if it is used the right way,” said Dr. Paul Busse of Beth Israel.

Although simulations for the project came out as early as 1993, trials using the epithermal neutron beams did not begin until Sept. 4, 1994. These trials started phase one of the reactor, and the first fusion, which was performed in 1996, occurred in the Brookhaven National Laboratories, which have stopped performing the beam procedures in cancer treatment.

The idea for the reactor came about around the time of the Chernobyl accident, when the future of nuclear science was questionable in the eyes of the public. To tour the facility, people must wear badges measuring the amount of radiation absorbed by each visitor.

Until the beam process is approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the spring of 2001, the procedure will be tested on “phantoms” (human models) and the facility will not be available to patients.

MIT was chosen for the laboratory due to the competence of the medical and science professionals from MIT and Harvard University which will be collaborating on the project, as well as the favorable infrastructure of the University and student assistance provided during the construction of the facility.

Most of the physical work was done by students, who used the project for coursework toward doctorates and other degrees related to nuclear and mechanical engineering.

MIT professors took part in the project, along with doctors from Beth Israel and scientists from nations including Germany and Brazil.

A number of government and private agencies helped fund the project, including the Department of Energy, the U.S. Medical Sciences Division, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, MIT, Seabrook Nuclear Power Station, Hanford Engineering Development Laboratory and the University of Virginia. By employing MIT students in the construction of the facility, the developers decreased expenses, which was estimated at $3 million.

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