August 15, 2023

Using physics to improve precision in cancer care

Three scientists in a lab looking at imaging on a computer monitor

FLASH radiation, where an ultra-high dose of radiation is given in a fraction of a second, is a recent area of study that holds significant potential to improve precision and comfort in cancer patient care. The technique has shown in studies to be highly effective against tumors while minimizing harmful effects on healthy tissue.

Still, researchers need to unravel exactly how this form of radiation works before it can be approved for use in patient care.

“There’s this giant mystery that nobody knows why it works that way. The mechanism is largely unexplained or unknown,” said Dr. Brian Pogue, chair of the University of Wisconsin Department of Medical Physics and a UW Carbone Cancer Center researcher. “So we’re digging into that mystery right now on the radiochemistry side.”

Pogue’s lab is part of a collaborative study to understand more about FLASH radiation, including access to a medical linear accelerator on campus, courtesy of an industry partner. The work at UW will complement studies at several university campuses nationwide.

Eventually, once the mechanisms at play are known and the safety has been vetted, Pogue said the goal would be to initiate clinical trials with patients.

“There is a lot of excitement about how we could better use radiation in clinical treatments,” he said.

Medical physics is an interdisciplinary field that applies physics principles to patient care through methods of disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment. This includes radiation oncology, imaging and nuclear medicine.

Pogue, who specializes in medical optical imaging and X-ray imaging, has spent his career focused on improving the precision of cancer diagnostics and treatment.

“Cancer is one of those illnesses where you really have to throw every technology at it to solve both the diagnosis and therapy, so it’s a natural fit for the technological focus areas that I work in,” Pogue said. “Since day one, I’ve always been a cancer researcher.”

Pogue is also working on optimizing imaging technology for molecular-guided surgery. This approach uses molecular dyes that highlight certain metabolic features of cancer cells that, with use of specialized camera systems, can help surgeons be more precise and deliberate in removing cancerous tissue.

“There are certain types of tumors where the margin is very unclear and that surgeons could do a better job of resecting if they can see the molecular features of the cells at the margin,” he said.

Pogue, who came to UW in 2022, was eager to help the Department of Medical Physics because of the strength of the resources on-campus, the industry partners in the community and the department’s history as a research powerhouse.

“The Department of Medical Physics (at UW) has existed for 40 years, and they’re a pioneer in taking physicists into the hospital to do translational cancer development for not just research but also for clinical medicine,” he said. “Coming here was just a very natural and exciting step for me.”