Hamilton hospital gets 'Ferrari' of radiation machines

A Hamilton hospital will soon have two new radiation machines, some of the first of their kind in Canada, that doctors say could cut down on the time cancer patients spend in hospital.
The Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton is the first Ontario hospital with a Varian TrueBeam radiation machine, a piece of technology doctors say could cut down on the number of hospital visits cancer patients have to make. (Varian Medical Systems)

A Hamilton hospital will soon have two new radiation machines, some of the first of their kind in Canada, that doctors say could cut down on the time cancer patients spend in hospital.

This December, crews will get to work installing two new TrueBeam linear accelerator systems, built by Varian Medical Systems, at the Juravinsky Cancer Centre. The state-of-the-art machines, which resemble a piece of space equipment, blast patients with particles — photons and electrons — to combat cancerous cells. At around $3.5 million each, Dr. Jim Wright, the hospital's chief of radiation, says the new machines do everything better, faster and more accurately. 

As far as linear accelerators go, Wright says, these are Ferraris. 

"It's all good from a patient perspective," he said. 

Wright said the new machines allow doctors to do 3D imaging, in the form of a quick CT scan, and treatment at the same time. And better yet, the system will allow doctors to continue working on treatment plans that could cut down the number of hospital visits radiation patients need.

Prostate cancer patients, for example, require between 35-38 radiation treatments. By using Volumetric-Modulated Arc Therapy (VMAT), an alternative to the currently favoured Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy the new machines will make easier, Wright hopes to cut that number down to 12.

'Not much point' taking the Ferrari to the corner store, Dr. Wright says

"Even just driving in every day, and paying for parking … people have better things to do with their time," Wright said, noting most people who get radiation do so on an outpatient basis.

VMAT itself is still in the clinical trial phase despite being on the medical scene for over five years, but Wright said radiologists are ramping up work in this area. 

Most of the major cancers are treated with some form of radiation.

The Juravinski Cancer Centre has 11 machines, so not every cancer treatment will be treated by the new machines. "We have pretty well-developed protocols for where we think people should be treated," Wright said.

"If I go back to the analogy of the Ferrari, sometimes if you just have to go to the corner store there's not much point in using it," he said, adding "we were driving a pretty good car before."

Wright's hope is that the hospital will be able to figure out what patients benefit the most from the new technology within the first year. More TrueBeam machines are likely on their way in the coming years, as the Centre's other machines need to be replaced.  

New machines will come to other hospitals in 'a couple of years', Wright says

Cancer Care Ontario, an agency of the provincial government will pay for the machines, though the hospital may have to spend money on renovating its bunkers — the maze-like structures surrounding the accelerators that contain radiation. The hospital may also need to upgrade laser systems that help doctors aim during radiation delivery.

Wright said while its nice to be on the cutting edge of cancer therapy, he's happy to know other hospitals will getting similar machines in the coming years. 

"We may be the first, but my guess is a couple years out from now a lot of centres will have this model," he said.

"There's a big place down the highway that gets a lot of attention for all the technology they have, and for a while Hamilton may have lagged behind … but you look at what we have in St. Catherines, and what we have in Hamilton, we're actually looking pretty good in terms of the types of technology we have."


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