Toshiba to develop machine for cutting-edge cancer therapy

Toshiba has joined a project to develop a next-generation particle beam radiation treatment for cancer by drawing on its expertise in nuclear power generation.

The Japanese company will develop a machine for boron neutron capture therapy, or BNCT. It hopes to conduct clinical trials on its use to treat malignant melanoma skin cancer starting in fiscal 2017, and manage the effort to gain government approval to manufacture and market the device. The goal is to have a commercial product ready as soon as fiscal 2021.

BNCT is a targeted type of radiation therapy. The patient is given a non-radioactive boron compound that is preferentially captured by cancer cells and then irradiated with a neutron beam. The beam itself is not damaging, but it excites the boron to release high-energy charged particles that can kill the cancer cells.

The advantage of the treatment is that it is specific to cancer cells and causes minimal damage to surrounding tissues. The drawback is that the neutron beam cannot reach below the superficial layers of the body, so BNCT cannot treat deep-seated tumors as is possible with proton therapy and heavy particle therapy, which are two other kinds of particle therapy.

That said, the BNCT equipment will be relatively inexpensive to install, and it is expected to be effective against hard-to-treat recurrent cancers and cancers that have widely metastasized.

Toshiba is joining an industry-academia-government project spearheaded by the University of Tsukuba and the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, also known as KEK. It is taking over the role formerly played by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Toshiba sold off its medical equipment subsidiary Toshiba Medical Systems to Canon, but it retained its business with heavy particle radiation systems and is working to promote sales. The company delivered such a system on its own for the first time to the Kanagawa Cancer Center in Yokohama last year, and it has received another order from the Yamagata University Hospital.

As a group, Japan’s heavy electrical equipment makers have a strong presence in the growing global market for particle therapy tools, in part because their nuclear-power-related technologies can be readily adapted for the medical equipment. Other players include Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi and Sumitomo Heavy Industries.

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