High-tech computer software. Infrared cameras. X-ray beams. A GPS system.
This may sound like the makings of a great science fiction film, but it’s real life: VERO – one of the most cutting-edge radiotherapy machines in the world – is currently being installed in Vancouver’s BC Cancer Agency.
Radiation is one of the three main pillars of cancer treatment (along with chemotherapy and surgery), and works by killing or shrinking tumour cells.
Around 13,000 cancer patients in B.C. receive radiation annually, but those with rare and difficult to treat cancers such as lung, kidney, pancreas, liver, and brain cancers often have tumours that move during treatment or are in challenging locations for radiation beams to reach.
This creates a difficult choice for patients and their oncologists: risk hitting other organs and causing further harm, or decrease the radiation dose to make it safer but less likely to destroy the tumour.
VERO offers a win-win situation to these patients, says Dr. Roy Ma, radiation oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency, with the radiation beam tracking the tumour as it moves versus the currently used “aiming and shooting” method.
“With radiation machines you move the treatment head to a certain location, and it will shoot the radiation… It’s not that you can’t kill the cancer but you might also do a lot of damage to the patient’s normal organs,” said Ma.
“VERO can actually chase the tumour as it moves: the radiation beam tracks the respiratory movement of the lung cancer, for example, so you don’t need to radiate such a large portion of the lungs [to make it effective].”
The machine was designed and manufactures in Japan, but the software that drives VERO was developed in Germany. It was first used to treat patients in 2011, and Ma says a mere “20 odd units” exist in the world. The BC Cancer Agency will be the first centre to use VERO in Canada.
The machine itself is fascinating, but nearly as impressive is the fact that the $6.5 million it took to buy and install VERO was raised by more than 4,000 BC Cancer Foundation donors in less than a year.
“This is really a good news story for B.C.,” said Ma. “We have such generous public that seems to resonate with this cause: some people gave millions, some people gave a small amount, but together the target was reached very quickly.”
VERO is currently being installed in the BC Cancer Agency, and the team is looking to start treating patients in early 2017.
“It’s very exciting,” said Ma, noting VERO has many features that have yet to be explored.
“This machine has so many features that are built in, some of which have not been uncorked… There’s going to be more and more treatment that we don’t even know exists right now.”