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Targeted Cancer Treatment

MIT researchers and experts from Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center are studying a new cancer therapy that could attack malignant cells while sparing healthy ones. Now in advanced clinical trials, the treatment, called neutron capture therapy, could be more accurate and effective than conventional treatment and could reduce side effects. It is being tested on patients with glioblastoma, a virulent form of brain cancer, and two types of melanoma.

Patients are given an intravenous dose of a boron isotope, which concentrates in tumor cells. Then researchers use a beam of neutrons to irradiate the cancerous cells. The boron absorbs the neutrons’ energy and splits into two lethal subatomic particles, which kill the cells in their vicinity. But because the potent subparticles travel only a short distance (about a cell’s length) before they exhaust their kinetic energy, they affect nearby malignant cells almost uniquely.

The trials are taking place at a new facility housed within MIT’s nuclear research reactor lab. It is currently the only facility in the United States that can generate the neutron beam used in the procedure. MIT research scientist Kent Riley says that the trial’s first six patients tolerated the procedure well. However, researchers are still seeking to determine the maximum safe dosages of both neutron radiation and boron injections.

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