670 Tonnes to Treat Cancer
It is 25 metres long, 13 metres wide and three storeys high: the University Hospital Heidelberg's new ion radiation control device (Gantry) at the Heidelberger Ionenstrahl-Therapiezentrum (HIT - Heidelberg Ion Radiation Therapy Centre). The combination of proton and heavy ion radiation, developed by the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, is unique in the world and, moreover, it is the world's largest rotating particle radiation control device. For the first time ever, it allows for comparative studies that will serve to identify which kind of radiation treatment is best suited to combat the respective kinds of tumour diseases.
Although, with its 670 tonnes of weight, the huge steel construction is a colossus indeed, it is also very moveable – a real heavy weight champion when it comes to combating tumours. The gantry can be turned by 360 degrees and allows for radiation beam control that is precise to a millimetre. The ions can accelerate to three quarters of the speed of light and penetrate the patient's tissue to a depth of 30 centimetres.
In future, the new gantry will be used in particular for clinical studies that focus on the treatment of tumours, which remain unaffected by traditional treatments. These studies are to demonstrate which kind of radiation is the most successful in treating the respective kinds of tumour diseases: radiation using protons or heavy ions such as carbon, helium or oxygen ions. The HIT already treats a total of 750 patients each year, 70 per cent of those in the context of clinical studies. The development of the gantry began in 1998 and comprised numerous studies, including some that were funded by the Helmholtz Association. Now, after the setting of 70 million parameter combinations, the gantry at last takes up operation. The aim is to identify the optimal form of treatment for each individual patient.
This approach is also part of the concept of the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT) Heidelberg, a joint institution of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the University Hospital Heidelberg. At the NCT, patients are provided in the fastest manner possible with a diagnosis, a recommendation for treatment as well as treatment based on the latest standard, one option being ion radiation. It is precisely this combination of the DKFZ's basic research with the university hospital's clinical research that is so efficient in promoting the development of cancer treatment methods. The commissioning of the new gantry now opens up many options on the path to individual tumour treatment.