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Finland to debut new high-powered reactor for cancer treatment

The new Boron Neutron Capture Treatment will be available in Helsinki, where it will be used to treat patients with recurring cancers of the head and neck.

The BNCT machine under construction in the US. Image: Neutron Therapeutics

The Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital district HUS has invested in a medically-modified Boron Neutron Capture device that can be used for treating the most intractable cancers. The device will be installed on the cancer ward of the Helsinki University Central Hospital’s (HYKS), where it will initially be used to treat patients with recurring cancers of the head and neck.

The prelude to the upcoming foray into boron neutron capture treatment in Finland dates back to the years between 1999 and 2011, when Finnish medical professionals experimented with the use of a small research nuclear reactor to treat cancer.

“The treatment results with the Boron Neutron Capture Treatment were extremely promising. In some patients with recurring cancers in the cranial and neck areas, the tumour tissue disappeared completely and in others it shrank. We were able to stabilise the disease in some patients -- in other words, the growth of tumour tissue stopped,” explained Leila Valtavirta, medical chief of staff of the HYKS cancer ward.

However a regular reactor is poorly suited to medical use in a hospital. As a result, in spite of its promising results, boron neutron capture treatment has not become a common form of cancer care.

HUS therefore commissioned the world’s first commercial BNCT device to be used for radiation treatment from the US-based company Neutron Therapeutics.

Combination therapies most effective against cancer

BNCT will initially be used to treat recurring cancers of the head and neck regions. However, the same technique will also be used against other kinds of cancers.

According to HYKS lead physicist Mikko Tenhunen, the new approach to cancer treatment works on completely different principles from existing radiation machines.

“Before treatment the patient receives a drug containing boron, which accumulates in the tumour. We can then focus neutron radiation on the tumour. This helps focus nearly twice as much radiation in the right place,” he added.

The radiation used in the session is very short range, so it does not affect the patient’s healthy tissue. Better targeting of more intense radiation yields better treatment results and produces less strain on the patient than conventional methods.

“One or two treatment sessions are required, compared to perhaps a five-week course of regular radiation therapy,” Tenhunen commented.

Hope from Finland for overseas cancer patients

Up to one in three Finns will suffer from cancer at some stage in their lives. Nearly two-thirds of cancer patients will survive. Approximately 91 percent of patients had a life expectancy of five years after their initial diagnosis.

According to a recently-published international comparison, Finland has one of the highest survival rates for cancer. Experts hope use of the BNCT machine will help improve the prospects for cancer patients.

“This is great for Finnish cancer patients and eventually for overseas patients as well,” said cancer ward chief Leila Vaalavirta.

The machine itself is not cheap, however. Hospital officials hope that in addition to helping non-Finnish patients, the device will also be an income-earner. So far officials say that interest in the treatment option has come from places such as China and Saudi Arabia.