First time treatment at James Graham Brown Center giving doctors the cutting edge on liver cancer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Juanita Simpson found out just weeks ago she has liver cancer and she is not a candidate for chemotherapy or surgery.

But the 76-year-old Greensburg, Ky., resident says she still feels like she has won the lottery.

That's because she lives just over an hour from the James Graham Brown Cancer Center, which just became the first in the nation to use a cutting edge treatment. It's giving doctors, for the first time, a clear shot at curing liver cancer without surgery.

The $4 million machine that does it is called Calypso.

"Before this, we just kind of said, 'You know there's not a lot we can do.  We can kind of keep things at bay for a period of time, but likely it's going to come back and cause you problems,'" said Dr. Neal Dunlap, a radiation oncologist with U of L Physicians.

So, what's different? Radio frequency markers about the size of a grain of rice are injected into a tumor.  They act as a sort of GPS, allowing doctors to keep a constant eye on a tumor's location during radiation treatment.

"The liver moves a lot as the patient breathes," U of L medical physicist Josh James said. "So, it's very important that we know where the tumor is within the liver while we're treating.  And, we really couldn't do that before. We had to treat a much larger area, so that as the tumor moved around, we had to make sure it was within the radiation field.  Now we can shrink that area that we're treating, because we now exactly where the tumor is at all times."

Two cameras interact with the array portion of the Calypso, and if the tumor ever moves out of the area it needs to be, the radiation beam automatically shuts off.

This new technology in the Calypso allows doctors to use a much stronger dose of radiation, but still spare surrounding tissue -- meaning few, if any, side effects.

"Now we're kind of turning things on its head, and we're talking about, 'Hey we have a curative technology that doesn't involve surgery,'" said Dr. Dunlap.

For Juanita, it means real hope that her liver cancer will soon be gone. So she can go back to enjoying her grandchildren and great grandchildren.

"And I can get out and work my flowers, whatever," She said happily.

Juanita is the second person to undergo the treatment.

The first patient, a man, also saw good results. Although, in both cases, doctors have to wait to see if they got the entire tumor.

Hopes are to get FDA approval to use this on other diseases, like lung cancer.

Treatments in other countries have eliminated lung tumors in 90 percent of patients.

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