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Using High Energy Protons, FPGAs and Firmware, to Kill Cancer

Written by BobW on May 6th, 2010

One of the benefits of being a medical device consultant is the opportunity to work with new technologies that can make a difference in peoples lives. One of our newest projects may provide a superior treatment for many types of cancer.

A traditional treatment for many cancers involves using X-ray radiation to kill the cancer cells. Radiation damages the cancer cells (and hopefully stops the cancer from spreading), but also causes collateral damage to surrounding healthy tissue. If the cancer tumor is deep within the body, the radiation dosage has to be increased due to the absorption by the healthy tissue along the way. This increases the unintended damage to the healthy tissue surrounding the tumor.

We have been working with our client on a treatment that is superior to X-ray radiation and has fewer side effects. Proton radiation offers a number of advantages over conventional X-ray radiotherapy. Protons can be used to deliver their energy at precise depths and locations. This minimizes the damage to surrounding tissue. Lower dosages can be used because there is no absorption by the healthy tissue. The energy can be precisely delivered to the tumor. This yields a treatment with fewer side effects for the patient.

The cost of the technology has limited the availability of Proton Beam Radiotherapy (PBRT). A PBRT system requires a particle accelerator to energize the protons, which is more costly than X-ray technology. Traditional particle accelerators cost between $90 – $180 million dollars. One of our clients, Still River System, is using innovative technology to bring the cost of Proton Beam Radiotherapy way down so that is within reach of more hospitals, even community hospitals.

The Monarch250 PBRT system uses a superconducting magnet to direct its proton beam. The coil of this magnet has zero resistance when cooled with liquid Helium. This allows large coil currents to generate very high fields in a compact magnet. The system uses a cyclotron to accelerate the protons and deliver the precise amount of energy needed to the tumors to destroy them.

My consulting firm, Oracle Engineering Inc, worked with medical device manufacturer Still River Systems to design the firmware and FPGA code for the RF subsystem that controls the proton delivery system. We also worked on the design of the magnetic quench system that protects the superconducting magnet from sudden increases in resistance of the coil that could cause heating and damage to the magnet.

This system should be available to hospitals in your area in the near future.

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