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Fighting Cancer with Protons

By using protons instead of X-rays, a new generation of CT scanners could help target tumors better

3 min read

This year in the United States, 6000 cancer patients—among them, those that suffer from pediatric, brain, and prostate cancer—will receive a new kind of treatment that irradiates tumors with a beam of protons rather than X-rays. New research suggests that those same protons could also provide more-accurate imaging and targeting of a patient’s tumor than the X-ray CT scans used today. Proton imaging would also drastically reduce a patient’s overall radiation exposure.

By using protons instead of photons, doctors can more easily kill cancer cells without also irradiating healthy cells around the tumor, says Sameer Keole, a radiation oncologist at the ProCure Proton Therapy Center, in Oklahoma City. He cites industry estimates that 240 000 cancer patients out of the more than 800 000 treated every year with X-rays would benefit from proton therapy. After his experience with proton therapy, he says he’s also ”bullish” about the prospects of new proton-imaging technologies.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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