Taking aim at cancer: Israeli-Danish team finds a new way to zap malignant cells

An innovative method of using radiation to treat lung cancer could change the way tumors are treated

Professors Konstantin Komoshvili and Jacob Levitan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Professors Konstantin Komoshvili and Jacob Levitan (photo credit: Courtesy)

With all the research to find a cure for cancer, radiation therapy is still considered by experts to be one of the most reliable forms of treatment in counteracting the disease. In fact, groups like the American Cancer Society list radiation therapy as one of the top treatments for many forms of cancer, along with surgery, chemotherapy, and other common forms of treatment.

Radiation therapy may be effective when it comes to killing cancerous cells, but it also has a devastating side effect — destroying healthy cells as well. As a result, the amount of radiation used is limited and cancerous cells may survive the treatment.

New research by a joint Israeli-Danish team, however, could point the way to a new type of radiation therapy that may help patients avoid the worst side-effects. The technology is called millimeter radiation, and consists of using a specific radiation wavelength when targeting cancerous cells. According to a series of experiments by a team at the Ariel University Center, the treatment significantly limits damage to healthy cells, to the point where doctors are able to “turn up the heat” on cancerous cells and destroy them far more effectively.

Rather than using X-rays, radiation is generated from the sub-millimeter band and aimed at specific cancerous cells, interrupting their ability to grow and reproduce. There is no excess heat to kill healthy cells, so the only cells affected are the cancerous ones.

In a series of experiments performed by the Israeli-Danish team at Ariel University, researchers used the method to irradiate human lung-cancer cells, which are generally extremely resistant to chemotherapy methods, whereas aggressive use of radiation therapy would badly damage the lung.

Using the novel method, the team observed the cancerous cells significantly change their sizes and forms when targeted with the sub-millimeter ray. The cells began to grow to what the researchers said were “monstrous” proportions, but at the same time, the cells’ nuclei began to self-destruct, and to grow a second nucleus — a sure sign that the cells’ DNA had been damaged.

The discovery came about as the result of research on enhancing radiation therapy, and experimenting with different radiation treatments. The next phase of the research will focus on understanding how sub-millimeter band rays damage the cells’ genetic material, and whether other types of cancer could be treated in this manner.

The results of this very early-stage research has meant that the project has already received funding from several foundations, including the Carlsberg Foundation and Denmark’s Fraenkel Foundation, which supports research in cardiology and cancer treatment.

The Israeli team includes three veteran researchers — physics professors Konstantin Komoshvili, Jacob Levitan, and Asher Yahalom, as well as engineering professor Boris Kapilewitch, and Dr. Stella Aronov of Ariel’s cancer research lab. On the Danish side, the team includes researchers from Denmark’s Technical University, and includes the well-known physicist Henrik Bohr, grandson of the Jewish physicist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr, and a nephew of nuclear physicist Aage Bohr, also a Nobel Prize winner.

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