UT Southwestern Medical Center is racing to complete the nation’s first center for heavy ion beam radiation therapy, a complex, capital-heavy investment that has improved the two-year survival rate of some cancers by as much as twofold in countries like Japan.
The university on Wednesday highlighted the effort as in line with Vice President Joe Biden’s so-called ‘Moonshot’ initiative, which is aimed at delivering resources to medical researchers and providers to make a decade’s worth of progress in battling cancer over the next five years. The event was one of 270 summits held in concert across the country, during which Biden spoke from Howard University, which was beamed in via YouTube.
Beyond his speech, it was a matter of zooming into local initiatives. And in Dallas Wednesday morning, the officials aimed their gaze at treating cancer using dense carbon ions shot from an enormous machine into tumors and cancer cells with unprecedented accuracy and minimal, if any, damage to healthy tissue. It would be housed in Dallas and used by doctors from all of the state’s major research universities. Heavy ion has huge potential for those diagnosed with cancer. In Japan, which has an active center, patients with pancreatic cancer went from a 40 percent one-year survival rate with traditional therapy to 74 percent. Two-year survival rates jumped from 17 percent to 54 percent.
“That’s more than double the survival rate using heavy ion therapy,” said Dr. Hak Choy, chairman of radiation oncology at UT Southwestern. “And that is just one example of how this might be beneficial to cancer patients. … we have zero centers in the United States to explore how to treat these patients” with ion therapy.
In the world, there are 10 currently operational (five in Japan, two in China, two in Germany, and one in Italy), six under construction (in Austria, China, Japan, and South Korea), and another four in the advanced planning stage (in France, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea).
The planned Texas center will use dense carbon ions to attack cancerous tumors, particularly those in difficult-to-reach places—the brain, the pancreas, dense breast tissue. The machine system is massive; it would take a room the size of a football field to house it. Up front, the university anticipates the technology costing $130 million and the building itself to cost $70 million.
The school was one of two in the nation to win $1 million planning grants earlier this year from the National Institutes of Health, receiving a near perfect score on its application (an 11 on a scale of 10 to 100). That money went toward funding the National Particle Therapy Research Center, of which the plans for the Heavy Ion facility were developed. It also includes a collaborative of about a dozen other state institutions—like MD Anderson, the Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M University, and the UT Medical Branch at Galveston—as well as NASA, which UT Southwestern President Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky said is also interested in heavy ion radiation.
This announcement isn’t necessarily new—the grant was approved in February, the consortium announced in 2015. But framed in the context of Biden’s speech, it shows that researchers at Southwestern and elsewhere in the state are considering what he’s selling—making it easier access to research opportunities, data, clinical trials, and collaboration. Too often, Biden says, data isn’t shared between facilities. Clinical trials aren’t accessible. The knowledge and talent is there, but the infrastructure isn’t, he argued, both for the big and small projects. And too often patients are having to physically travel to another city or state to find the cancer care they need. He pointed to his son, Beau, who died of brain cancer—they had to physically ship his patient information from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland to MD Anderson in Houston, he said.
“The impediment isn’t the lack of gray matter genius and ingenuity in terms of new drugs, treatments, etcetera. It’s all this stuff that gets in the way. The one thing I’m good at in government is getting things out of the way,” Biden continued. “We’ve got to figure out how to get out of your way and you guys need to figure out how to get in each other’s way more.”
He also vowed to cut funding to any institutions whose physicians who fail to report clinical trial results, a problem that is, according to this STAT News investigation, rife throughout the nation. UT Southwestern, the report found, needed to post results for 34 clinical trials. Of those, STAT found that 50 percent were late and 47 percent were missing. And of those late, the institution was 581 days behind.
”Under the law it says you must report. You don’t report, the law says you shouldn’t get any funding. Doc, I’m going to find out if it’s true and if it’s true I’m going to cut funding,” Biden said. “That’s a promise. All it does is slow progress.”
In a statement, UT Southwestern said it “takes seriously our obligation to ensure that research results are shared in a timely fashion and is working to ensure that investigators deliver on that commitment.”
Biden has been traveling the world speaking with researchers and experts to determine what they need to reach the admittedly vague goal of “accelerating progress toward ending cancer as we know it.” Wednesday’s summit brought with it a more concrete path forward. The White House announced nearly 40 new initiatives that include the pairing of the National Institutes of Health with a dozen biopharmaceutical companies as well as plans to launch an easy to navigate app and website for information on specific clinical trials, making the information more accessible to doctors and patients alike. Then there are more capital heavy expenditures, like what UT Southwestern is wading into.
Its initiative will need money from federal, state, local, and philanthropic sources. Heavy ion therapy was actually pioneered in America at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the late 1980s. But the project face-planted after federal budget cuts in 1993. That, coupled with the stagnation of the budget for the National Institutes of Health, prevented any sort of major capital infusion into a project the size of this.
“In that environment, it is hard to think in terms of a big ambitious project as opposed to what would be more conventional scale of individual research grants,” Podolsky said.
But the time appears to be right to seize on the moment and move forward. The ion collaborative falls right into Biden’s push for researchers to work together to further cancer-fighting technology. Podolsky said he recently briefed U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, and the Texas delegation on the planning progress. He’s also spoken with legislators, as the state will likely need to help pay for some of the operational costs. The university also continues to vie for grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, which has sent Southwestern $274 million in grants since its formation in 2007.
Podolsky also said he’d been speaking with private donors who “share the enthusiasm” that Texas be the first location for a center. The university also says it would create another 130 jobs and attract high-profile researchers from around the world.
“As a driver of innovation, it is literally and figuratively a magnet attracting talent as a research facility. We fully expect there will be researchers coming from the global research community,” he said. “Just as the governor commented when he was here on campus in April, we’re talking about a vision for a knowledge economy in Texas. I think that should be part of the equation in looking at the totality of what this would accomplish.”