Many other universities have had such a department for 10 or 20 years, but it is being created at GRU at a time when radiation oncology is starting to get more attention and funding for research.
Radiation therapy had been largely static until improvements in technology made it easier to target tumors and avoid healthy tissue, said Kong, who is coming from the University of Michigan.
“The modern technology allows us to spare the adjacent normal structures such as the heart and lung, spinal cord and esophagus very effectively,” she said. “That makes it possible for us to deliver an effective dose to the tumor.”
It creates the possibility for individualizing doses, which wasn’t standard practice before, Kong said.
“Radiation treatment has been really fixed,” she said. “It hasn’t changed that much in terms of what dose you gave. It has been one dose fits all, for everything.”
Kong had an idea to make it even more individualized by using a PET scan, which measures the activity level of cells, in the midst of treatment to see how the tumor is responding.
Conventional wisdom said a PET scan couldn’t be used during radiation therapy because inflammation from the treatment would throw off the findings, but Kong said her review of the literature and an animal study showed that is not the case.
What the scan allows the physician to do is target areas of the tumor that are the most active and resistant with more aggressive therapy and perhaps lessen it to areas that are responding.
Kong will present findings from the first study on this next week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting.
“You can actually use it during treatment to guide the future individualized care,” Kong said. “We found the changes during treatment are very different from patient to patient, from tumor to tumor.”
It is that kind of tailored therapy that made Kong attractive to the cancer center and will fit well with other initiatives underway, said GRU Cancer Center Director Samir N. Khleif.
“This is one of the goals of the cancer center and the cancer care we’re developing here, to really develop personalized cancer medicine for our patients and our population,” he said. “Personalized cancer medicine includes multiple facets to it, which is targeted therapy, radiation therapy, immune therapy.”
One of the reasons Kong was interested in coming to Augusta is the program’s strength in immunotherapy. Radiation therapy itself can be a stimulator of the immune system, she said. For instance, in the case of multiple tumors, irradiating one can stimulate the immune system to attack others in a kind of “bystander” effect, Kong said.
Combining that with other immune therapies being developed at the center could be an important and new approach, she said, to attack the tumor very locally and systemically.
“We can really work out some novel treatment that does not exist in the country or in the world,” Kong said.