New cancer radiation treatment has no harmful side effects in mice

In the latest effort to find less harmful treatments for cancer, a researcher at the University of Missouri has developed a new form of radiation therapy that puts cancer in remission in mice.

M. Frederick Hawthorne, director of MU's International Institute of Nano and Molecular Medicine, and his team have used a method called boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT) to treat cancer in mice. The idea of BNCT has been around since the 1930s, and the development of a boron delivery agent has been an ongoing field of research for the past 50 years.

Hawthorne designed a boron chemical from a form of boron that splits when it captures a neutron and releases lithium, helium and energy. The helium and lithium atoms penetrate the cancer cell and destroy it from the inside without harming the surrounding tissues. Because cancer cells grow faster than normal cells and in the process absorb more materials than normal cells, Hawthorne's team was able to infuse cancer cells with the boron chemical. When they then exposed them to neutrons, a subatomic particle, the boron atom shattered, tearing apart the cancer cells and sparing neighboring healthy cells. The treatment produced none of the harmful side effects of conventional chemo and radiation cancer therapies in mice.

Hawthorne said the MU's research nuclear reactor--the largest of its kind at a university--contributed greatly to his findings. His research was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"A wide variety of cancers can be attacked with our BNCT technique," Hawthorne said in a statement. "The technique worked excellently in mice. We are ready to move on to trials in larger animals, then people."

According to an item in the St. Louis Business Journal, Hawthorne estimates that he'll need $6 million to begin trials in humans.

Hawthorne has ambitious plans for his research--he said he hopes MU will become the first institution in the world to offer this kind of new radiation therapy to patients.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama awarded Hawthorne the National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed by the country to scientists.

- here's the study abstract
- read the University of Missouri statement
- get the St. Louis Business Journal story