Friday, July 29, 2011

Astronomers' Discovery May Lead To Improved Cancer Treatments; Another Argument In Favor of Basic Science Research

For many people who suffer from any number of cancers, radiation treatments are a vital part of the regime along with chemotherapy.

A discovery by astronomers studying black holes may make that radiation treatment far more effective and safer.
Pradhan conducted computer simulations to calculate how individual atoms would react to every wavelength of energy -- no small feat. They logged many hours at the Ohio Supercomputer Center to complete the analysis.

But the effort was worth it. Pradhan found that some of the prior measurements of chemical abundances inside stars might be off by as much as 50 percent. They were also intrigued by how certain heavy metal atoms absorb radiation: they emit low-energy electrons when exposed to x-rays at specific energies. For example, bombarding iron, gold and platinum with a small dose of x-rays tuned to a narrow frequency range results in a burst of low-energy electrons.

Both x-rays and heavy metals like gold and platinum are routinely used in medical imaging and cancer treatment, hinting at more practical applications. It's the fine-tuning of the x-ray source that seems to be key.
The scientists are now examining how to take advantage of this observation and the assembly of a device that would take advantage of the fact that gold or platinum nanoparticles amass naturally in cancerous tumors in the body, and could then be zapped with the focused x-ray beam. The beam wouldn't require the levels of radiation utilized at present and could be even more focused than existing technologies. It would allow cancer cells to be killed without damaging nearby health tissue. The goal is to combine radiation therapy with chemotherapy, using platinum as the active agent.

It would also be able to target cancers that are previously considered to be inoperable or resistant to current medical treatment.

Once again, this is the result of basic science research and a multidisciplinary view on basic science. Projects like the follow-up to the Hubble Telescope are under fire for being over cost and may be cut by the current Congress. That would be a huge mistake considering the vast amount of knowledge gleaned about the universe from the Hubble and other similar technologies. Canceling the Webb telescope would hinder further discoveries that may have spinoff applications in other fields, including medicine.

It's yet another reason to donate to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Light the Night campaign, which is fighting for a cure for a wide range of blood cancers, including the kind that Legalbgl wrote of that struck his wife, Non-Hodgkin’s disease called Primary Mediastinum B-Cell Lymphoma.

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