By John Infanti
The new Albert Chadwick Research Room looks nondescript from the outside, just like any other lab, but there’s nothing else quite like it anywhere in the United States. From the inner workings of a tumor to outer space, this is a place with enormous potential.
What makes the room so unique is its radiation research platform—a miniaturized version of the equipment used in modern radiation oncology clinics like the one down the hall within Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center. The platform is designed to precisely deliver photon radiation (the traditional kind used to treat cancer patients). However, it is also mounted on a rail system so it can be positioned directly in front of the research proton beam. Patients have been treated at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center since 2010, but until the opening of this research room in March 2017, researchers had time limitations on the use of the beam for experiments.
“Several facilities have one or the other modality, but only a few in the entire country have both, and none of those have integrated their capabilities into a single room,” said Costas Koumenis, PhD, vice chair and director of Research in Radiation Oncology.
The facility makes it possible to do pre-clinical research steps away from the clinical spaces at the Abramson Cancer Center. This research may include advancements in radiation vaccine research and in groundbreaking immunotherapies like checkpoint inhibitors which attempt to free the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Robert Vonderheide, MD, DPhil, the Hanna Wise Professor in Cancer Research and newly appointed director of the Abramson Cancer Center, pointed out that Penn researchers will be able to design combination therapies, test them here, and translate them directly into the clinic in the next room over. “You can’t narrow the gap from bench to bedside any further,” he said.
And the ability to do photon and proton research side-by-side also has an impact much wider and further away. Next-Planet-From-The-Sun further.
The radiation used for cancer therapies is a targeted version of what exists in outer space, and exposure to that radiation presents a major health risk, and thus a serious challenge for exploration of the solar system. Since so few humans have ever spent extended time in space, it’s important to be able to simulate space-like radiation conditions here on Earth, for both humans and the equipment they need to function in space.
“If your computer is affected and your software crashes in space, your mission is over,” said Lei Dong, PhD, vice chair and director of Medical Physics. Dong has worked with SpaceX and Boeing in the past to test the effect radiation has on electronics and the recovery software necessary to make sure those devices work when exposed to space-like levels. Now he’ll continue that work at Penn in partnership with NASA and others in the aerospace industry.
“The research that happens here could take us places we haven’t anticipated yet,” said James Metz, MD, GME’00, chair of Radiation Oncology at Penn Medicine. “But from drug discovery to mechanical discovery, and of course the exciting work connected with sending astronauts into space, the truth is there’s really no other facility quite like this.”