Microscopic balls use radiation to target cancerous cells

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POSTED: Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 9:00am

UPDATED: Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 9:04am

University of Utah professor Beverly Brehl was back teaching her class only seven days after doctors placed microscopic cancer-killing spheres into her bloodstream.

With metastasized breast cancer now in her liver, doctors at the Huntsman Cancer Institute decided to try a different kind of attack.

Through a small incision in her groin, interventional radiologist Ryan O'Hara inserted spheres that are each only 32 microns in size.

That's slightly larger than a red blood cell.

The spheres, packed with some potent ammunition, made their way through a catheter snaked into her liver and directly into the artery that feeds the tumor.

"They're loaded with a radioisotope called Yitrium 90 which is a beta emitter. That's beta radiation delivered directly to the tumor via the blood system," Dr. O'Hara explains.

Though the spheres throw out 40 times more radiation than conventional external-beam radiation, they target the tumor directly with little or no collateral damage to surrounding healthy cells.

Ninety-four percent of the radiation is delivered in 11 days.

After a month, there's no lingering activity.

Though the average lifespan for metastatic breast cancer is about 28 months, Professor Brehl continues pushing the envelope.

She has to, she says, because that's what the new generation war against cancer is all about.

"I want to be here for my son who is not even two yet," she says. "It's just this continuing battle of staying optimistic and doing every treatment that comes along."

Every time the cancer resurfaces, knock it down -- always hoping new and better treatments work more and more and more often than not.

In the end, though a cure for cancer as a "universal" disease remains elusive, its definition is changing dramatically.

"We've taken what was once a death sentence and turned it into a chronic disease where people can live with their disease," Dr. O'Hara says.

In breast cancer fundraising events and more, Brehl is doing just that.

Every day, every week, every month is precious.

"I'm very hopeful because I have to be present for my son, to be a parent," she says.

Though the sphere treatment procedure is FDA approved for primary liver and colon cancers, it application for metastatic breast cancer remains limited.

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