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Scientists Zap Breast Cancer With Super-Strength 'GammaPod'

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Oncologists at the University of Maryland have developed a "pod" that allows breast cancer patients to receive radiation treatment while lying comfortably on a couch. 

The GammaPod system might help eliminate invasive surgeries for some breast cancer patients, because it is able to target tumors with 36 precisely focused radiation beams. However, the tumors have to be spotted early on, and treated quickly.

Patients using the GammaPod system lay down on a couch, and a "pod," or cup-like attachment, is situated around the affected breast or breasts (there are 28 sizes, to accommodate everyone). It uses vacuum suction to fit snugly against the breast and then target radiation exactly on the tumor. The procedure lasts between 5 and 40 minutes, depending on the placement, density, and size of the tumor.  

The technology would be a great improvement on current breast cancer radiation methods, which are less targeted, and can affect surrounding tissue and organs like the lungs and heart. The high-dose radiation therapy is known as stereotactic body radiotherapy, or SBRT.

"With standard therapy, patients with early-stage breast cancer have surgery to remove the tumor, followed by five to seven weeks of radiation treatments to destroy any residual cancer cells," says inventor Dr. Cedric Yu. "We believe that GammaPod has the potential to significantly shorten the treatment time to a few sessions over the course of a week, and in the future, potentially eliminate the need for surgery in select patients."

The device has been in development for over a decade, and is just now able to go into clinical trials, where volunteers can receive treatment and scientists can gather information on whether the device actually works, and works safely, on human subjects. In all, 17 patients will participate in this first study.

The GammaPod system is owned by Yu, who holds at least 17 patents for cancer treatments, so he has a lot of experience developing clever adaptations to the usual methods of treating patients with cancer.

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