Cancer treatment for region gets technological boost

Friday, December 19, 2003

Calling it the "most significant technological advance in cancer care" to hit this region, Southeast Missouri Hospital is bringing a revolutionary new treatment to the area that holds the promise of allowing some cancer patients to be treated as part of an outpatient 30-minute procedure.

It's called Novalis, and it's a $2.7 million project that promises to enable doctors to treat tumors of the brain, head, neck, spine, liver, lung and prostate without harming surrounding healthy tissue.

"There is not any other system currently available on the market better than Novalis," said Cape Girardeau neurosurgeon Scott Gibbs, who has advocated getting the system here for several years. "There's no other comprehensive system out there that treats these kind of tumors with the precision and accuracy of Novalis."

On Dec. 1, the hospital was given unanimous approval for Novalis by the Missouri Facilities Review Commission. Novalis, manufactured by German-based BrainLAB, is considered by many within the medical field to be the most sophisticated approach to what is called stereotactic radiosurgery and radiotherapy available today.

Hospital administrator Jim Wente called it a "landmark decision."

"The addition of shaped beam technology to the Regional Cancer Center's arsenal of weapons against a disease that this year will affect 1.3 million Americans is a continuation of that commitment to provide the latest technology close to home," Wente said.

At the core of the system -- which is expected to be a first for Missouri health care -- is a beam shaping device that allows Novalis to send 3-millimeter beams to the tumor from any angle.

"This is radiation treatment given in a very precise and accurate way," said Dr. Joseph Miller, a radiation oncologist at Southeast Missouri Hospital. "This particular unit has the advantage of being able to be used on cancers located in several places in the body if the cancer is small enough that it can be treated with this system."

Don't make this mistake: This is not brain surgery.

"It's not surgery where a neurosurgeon cuts with a knife," Miller said. "We've had to send these patients to St. Louis or Memphis in the past for similar treatment. But this system allows us to treat them here."

The system is expected to be operational in about six months, Miller said. Some minor construction work has begun in an area of the Regional Cancer Center that housed one of the center's two linear accelerators. The Novalis equipment, which stands about 9 feet tall and is similar in appearance to a CT scanner, will replace one of the linear accelerators.

Gibbs learned about Novalis a few years ago. He went to the University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center. There, he met Dr. Timothy Solberg, a physicist, who helped develop Novalis treatment plans. Later, Gibbs came back and presented his ideas to Miller and Wente.

"I was so impressed," Gibbs said. "I think it's going to really change the way we think about treating cancer. It's another option and that means hope."

Some patients, especially frail people or the elderly, can't withstand traditional brain surgery. This will be an excellent opportunity for them, Gibbs said.

"It delivers the radiation painlessly," he said. "The patients don't feel anything. There's no general anesthesia. There's no hospitalization in most cases, no post procedure recovery time. The patient can get up and leave, go out to lunch, go to the mall, or whatever they want to do."

Another Cape Girardeau neurosurgeon, Kevin Vaught, said this is more than just another medical gadget.

"It's not going to take care of just this community," he said. "This is for Cape Girardeau and the entire region. It will help people in many of the surrounding communities, I can assure you of that."

Vaught predicts the number of brain surgeries will go down because of the "lower risks and almost no complications compared to brain surgeries."

The system will put Cape Girardeau in a very elite group. There are currently only 33 Novalis sites in the United States, including the prestigious M.D. Anderson Cancer Center-Orlando, UCLA, Harvard Medical School and Henry Ford Hospital.

"There are so few of these facilities in the country and for a community this size to get one is huge," Vaught said. "There are many very large cities that don't have one."

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