Colorado State University and Japan Research Promising New Cancer Treatment

Colorado State University has entered into an unprecedented partnership with Japan that will allow the university to research a new, promising treatment for cancer – carbon ion therapy – which is currently not available in the United States.

Research will focus on carbon ion therapy to treat multiple cancers as well as look at medicinal chemistry therapy – the use of naturally-occurring chemicals such as antioxidants – that may increase the effectiveness of carbon ion therapy for cancer treatment.

“This partnership gives Colorado State University ready access to study a unique cancer therapy that has shown great promise in Japanese clinical trials. This therapy is not being studied anywhere else in the United States,” said Jac Nickoloff, head of the university’s Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. “This partnership also allows us to create an international open laboratory that will be a platform for other U.S. researchers with expertise in cancer and toxicology to connect with the knowledge and resources available in Japan, the world leader in this new field of research.”

The partnership involves a trilogy of cancer expertise from College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences: the recently launched international Center for Environmental Medicine, the Animal Cancer Center and the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. The Center for Environmental Medicine, which will house this new research initiative, was launched in 2008 at CSU in partnership with Japan during a trade mission trip involving Gov. Bill Ritter.

Counterparts in Japan are Gifu University School of Medicine and the National Institute of Radiological Sciences, called NIRS, located in Chiba, which is Japan’s equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. NIRS is home to HIMAC, a heavy ion medical accelerator, in Chiba– one of only three heavy ion medical accelerators operating worldwide, including another facility in Japan and one in Germany. The HIMAC uses high-energy carbon ions to zap tumors with some very notable successes, but the science behind how it works is still not very well understood. There are no heavy ion accelerators for medical use in the United States, nor are any being planned.

“The partnership also solidifies the first joint faculty appointment between a U.S. university and a Japanese research institute, with the hire of a CSU alum and native of Japan with expertise in toxicology and cancer,” said Bill Hanneman, director of the Center for Environmental Medicine. “Dr. Takamitsu Kato will begin working at CSU in April and he will travel to NIRS twice a year to pursue research projects using the HIMAC.”

In Japan, 5,000 patients have already been treated with experimental HIMAC therapy. CSU, NIRS and Gifu University will partner on research into heavy ion radiotherapy and eventually embark on clinical trials to treat naturally occurring tumors in larger animals such as cats and dogs, and in humans.

Carbon ion therapy works in a similar way to traditional radiation therapy that uses photons, in that a cancerous tumor is targeted with the goal to destroy cancer cells and tumors. Carbon ions, however, are much larger than photons and their size allows them to cause more havoc and create irreparable damage when they hit a cancer cell. Another benefit: unlike traditional radiation therapies, carbon ion treatments do not damage healthy cells in the path to the tumor. Scientists can control the depth in the body that the ions penetrate, and tailor the “shape” of the energy deposited by the carbon ions to closely match the shape of a tumor. Once the ions reach the tumor, the energy is delivered in a very narrow zone, almost like an explosion within the tumor. The treatment provides doctors with important options when targeting tumors near sensitive structures such as the brain.

“We don’t understand enough about the damage that occurs in the tumor cells with this treatment,” said Nickoloff. “The bulk of tumors are made of fast growing cells. They are relatively easy to kill because they are more sensitive to DNA damage caused by treatments. However, cancer stem cells may make up only a small part of a tumor but underlie why chemotherapy and traditional photon-based radiotherapy fail. Scientists believe that these cells are likely where the cancer starts and while this group of cells does not grow quickly, they may be producing other cancer cells that grow quickly. We think it is possible that carbon ion therapy will be highly effective against these stem cells and prevent cancer from recurring at the local site after treatment, or metastasizing to other sites in the body.”

Kato will work with other researchers in the Center for Environmental Medicine to find naturally occurring substances that can be used as therapies against cancer, such as antioxidants and radio sensitizers, which may enhance the effectiveness of carbon ion therapy. Because it is a new therapy, carbon ion treatments are expensive and only a few people can be treated at a time. While an out-patient procedure because of the low side effects, an individual may receive 4-5 treatments in as many days for tens of thousands of dollars. If environmental chemicals can make carbon ion treatments more effective, more patients can be treated.