THE PEREGRINE program, a new approach to planning radiation therapy, has joined the more than 4,000-year search for a cure for cancer. This search has been an arduous journey, traceable in recorded history to the ancient Egyptians, who used surgical techniques to remove tumors. The quest has touched many fields of modern science including biology, chemistry, genetics, and--somewhat surprisingly--physics.|
In 1895, William Roentgen, a physicist studying electricity and magnetism, discovered x rays. Almost immediately, the ability of x rays to penetrate many materials and to expose film led to an appreciation that x rays could be used as a tool for diagnosing a variety of human ailments. Only a short time later, the idea of using x rays to not only "see" cancer, but also to treat it, was being studied.
In the century since this exciting discovery, physicists, engineers, and doctors have been working together to build new types of radiation sources and methods of treatment--striving to understand how radiation therapy works and how to make it more effective. Today, nearly two million people worldwide are treated with various forms of radiotherapy each year. But like surgery and other forms of treatment, radiotherapy is not without its risks--too little radiation does not destroy the cancer; too much radiation causes damage to healthy tissue. The safety and effectiveness of radiotherapy depend on the accuracy of the treatment, that is, where the radiation is aimed and where its energy is deposited.
This is where PEREGRINE comes into the story.
PEREGRINE brings a radically new level of accuracy to the field of radiotherapy by its unique ability to predict where radiation deposits energy in the body. PEREGRINE will open the way to more accurate prescriptions for radiation therapy, more aggressive treatment of tumors, lower risk to normal tissue, better clinical trials, and a variety of advanced approaches to treating cancer.
What special expertise does the Laboratory bring to this endeavor?
Like Roentgen's discovery of x rays, the development of the PEREGRINE program fits the paradigm of "unexpected consequences." Ironically, much of our knowledge of the physics of radiation that is needed to develop better treatments for cancer-- how radiation is produced, how it travels, and how it interacts with various materials--comes from our research into and development of nuclear weapons. Over the last 40 years, the Laboratory has developed unmatched capabilities in radiation transport and nuclear physics.
But these capabilities alone are not sufficient to make PEREGRINE useful outside a very limited research environment. Because the diagnosis of cancer has long been considered a death sentence, our goal has always been to go beyond proof of principle and put PEREGRINE into the hands of the health-care community. We have melded the Laboratory's core competencies in physics, medical physics, computer science, and engineering to achieve the breakthrough in accuracy, speed, and cost necessary to make PEREGRINE a viable product for medical professionals. We also have established a network of collaborations with the leading medical research institutions in the U.S. to understand and respond to the real needs of their community.
PEREGRINE is now fast enough for everyday use and economical enough to be used in all clinical environments. PEREGRINE may soon help to save lives by bringing superior radiation treatment to all cancer patients.
The combination of choosing the most difficult problems, building expert multidisciplinary teams to find breakthrough solutions, and working with world experts to complement our capabilities is the hallmark of successful Laboratory programs. With this process, we are fulfilling our charter to shape the tools of world-class science and to meet national needs.