Incubating Progress: SABR/Lung Cancer

The Foundations

Dr. Robert Timmerman
Dr. Robert Timmerman

2003

Dr. Hak Choy is named Chairman of Radiation Oncology at UT Southwestern, with the goal of developing a department that deploys the most promising technologies against cancer.

At a national meeting of radiation oncologists, Dr. Robert Timmerman, then a faculty member at Indiana University and a renowned expert in stereotactic radiosurgery, is met with skepticism when he presents early results of a clinical trial indicating that SABR appears effective in patients with early-stage, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

2004

Dr. Timmerman is recruited to join the radiation oncology faculty at UT Southwestern in a practice focused on stereotactic radiation. The lung—the most mobile and difficult site to work with—is the subject of the first wave of SABR research because proof-of-principle in that location would translate readily to cancers in other locations.

2011

UT Southwestern becomes the first North American institution to install Vero SBRT, an advanced system for imaging tumors and delivering treatment. Vero joins Simmons Cancer Center’s formidable arsenal of stereotactic radiotherapy technology, including cutting-edge Gamma Knife, CyberKnife, Agility, and TrueBeam technology.

Gamma Knife, CyberKnife, and Vero SBRT
Current Department of Radiation Oncology facilities include the 30,000-square-foot W.A. Monty & Tex Moncrief Radiation Oncology Building; the Annette Simmons Stereotact i c Treatment Center, which houses the Gamma Knife ( 1 ) and CyberKnife ( 2 ) for cranial and extracranial stereotact ic radiosurgery; and the newly added 16,000-square-foot Radiation Oncology Building housing technologies such as the Vero SBRT (3).

The Translation

2010

In a study of 55 early-stage lung cancer patients too frail to withstand traditional surgery, Drs. Timmerman, Choy, and colleagues report SABR has achieved control of 98 percent of the primary tumors, a rate comparable with surgical resection. Previously, for early-stage patients unable to withstand surgery, standard radiation had achieved only a 30 to 40 percent rate of tumor control. The publication changes the standard of care for so-called medically inoperable patients.

2011

A $3.5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) funds a five-year multi-institution effort to develop advanced radiotherapy technology for lung cancer with the aim of also reducing toxicity. The program is led by Dr. Choy and includes Cancer Center members Dr. Timmerman, Dr. Chul Ahn, and Dr. Puneeth Iyengar.

2012

Cancer Center scientists receive a $4.1 million multi-investigator research award from CPRIT to explore in lung cancer how best to exploit the radiobiological effects of SABR,
whose cancer-killing properties at the cellular level appear different than standard radiation. Dr. Timmerman heads the project, which also involves Cancer Center members Drs. Ralph Mason, Rolf Brekken, Chul Ahn, Debu Saha, and others, along with the work of Dr. Phil Thorpe.

2014

Cancer Center researchers led by Drs. Timmerman and Choy potentially extend the use of SABR to patients with stage 4 limited metastatic NSCLC. In a phase II, multi institution trial combining lowered doses of SABR with the drug erlotinib, the treatment is well-tolerated and patients markedly surpass the time periods they otherwise would be expected to survive without disease progression. Tissue analyses suggest the SABR is primarily responsible for the benefit.

The Impact

SABR plan for a lung cancer
SABR plan for a lung cancer

2008-2015

As stereotactic radiotherapy research flourishes, new studies indicate its effectiveness on various cancers that have spread to a limited number of sites within organs such as the liver and lungs. SABR also appears promising in classically “radio-resistant” tumors such as renal cancer and melanoma.

2009

UT Southwestern’s Department of Radiation Oncology begins hosting quarterly, hands-on courses to train peers interested in implementing SABR in their clinical practice. To date, more than 300 practitioners from all over the world have been trained through the initiative.

2014

A team led by Dr. Timmerman reports on five-year follow-up results among the patients, too frail for surgery, who received SABR for early-stage lung cancer. The rate of recurrence at primary tumor sites is low, and the powerful therapy is not associated with any surge of late ill effects—demonstrating SABR’s long-term efficacy and safety in early lung cancer.

2015

Investigation of SABR continues at UT Southwestern for cancers in sites including the prostate, breast, and larynx, and a range of clinical trials of the therapy is open at Simmons Cancer Center.

The Future

Drs. Timmerman, Choy, and Ahn are leading an ambitious phase III study that encompasses more than two dozen sites, directly comparing the benefits of surgery versus SABR in lung cancer patients healthy enough to choose surgery. The trial aims to collect evidence from 258 patients with high-risk stage 1 NSCLC.

UT Southwestern scientists continue to reveal other possible uses for SABR—for instance, treating inferior vena cava tumor thrombus, an often deadly kidney cancer complication—while medical physicists are advancing imaging techniques to more precisely predict motion, further improving treatment safety and accuracy.

Simmons researchers also aim to develop SABR using heavy particles instead of photons— lowering radiation dose to healthy tissues. And with a $1 million planning grant from the National Cancer Institute, as well as state funding, UT Southwestern is leading a Texas consortium to plan for the first national Heavy Ion Radiation Therapy and Research Center, with the goal of researching and providing innovative cancer treatments that leverage the potency and precision of heavy particles.

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