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Cancer: Radiation Outside the Body

2 minute read

It is easy enough to kill cancer cells with large doses of radiation, but in most cases it is difficult to destroy the diseased cells without killing too many of the patient’s healthy cells at the same time. And in leukemia, or “blood cancer,” selective radiation has long seemed impossible because the target cells are diffused throughout the body.

Now, a promising solution to that formidable problem is being tested by medical-research teams at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island and at the University of Washington in Seattle. The doctors insert two plastic tubes in the patient’s forearm, one into an artery and the other into a vein. With the patient’s own heart serving as the pump, his blood is led into a loop of tubing and carried behind a lead shield. There, it is subjected to massive bombardment—with isotopic radiation by Dr. Eugene P. Cronkite at Brookhaven, or with X rays by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas’ group in Seattle.

Only half a dozen patients have been treated so far in each center. White blood cell counts, which soar as high as 200,000 per cubic millimeter in leukemia, have dropped to around 8,000#151;within the normal range. Patients with some of the chronic forms of leukemia have maintained their improvement for as long as nine months after treatment. Benefit in acute leukemia has been much shorter, but all the patients have been adults, in whom the chronic forms of the disease are more common.

The basic idea of irradiating blood outside the body is not new, but for years it was impractical because patients needed surgery as often as once a day to implant and remove the forearm tubes. The current adaptation was made possible by Dr. Belding H. Scribner of Seattle (TIME, May 12, 1961), who devised a way of implanting the tubes permanently in the arms of patients needing regular treatments on the artificial kidney.

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