published Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Erlanger unveils $7.3 million robotic tumor zapper


by Chris Carroll
Radiation oncologist Dr. Frank Kimsey speaks about one of Erlanger hospital's newest medical devices, the CyberKnife, during a press conference at Erlanger's cancer center late Tuesday morning.
Radiation oncologist Dr. Frank Kimsey speaks about one of Erlanger hospital's newest medical devices, the CyberKnife, during a press conference at Erlanger's cancer center late Tuesday morning.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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Retired TVA engineer Hugh Gardner got restless as he sprawled across an Erlanger hospital medical table this summer.

He twiddled his thumbs and gazed at the ceiling, where he thought he'd count tiles. Instead he saw dogs, bears and other creatures in an illustration that featured puffy clouds and blue skies.

"I even had an image of Jesus after laying there a while," he said.

All this focused his boredom, despite his reason for being there -- radiation treatments for a cancerous prostate.

His mind stayed busy because he never felt a thing, thanks to Erlanger's $7.3 million radiosurgery initiative that funded CyberKnife, a behemoth robot-controlled radiation beam that allows doctors to zap cancerous tumors that once were considered inoperable.

On Tuesday, Erlanger's public relations team assembled Gardner, doctors and local reporters presumably to mark three months since the hospital began treating patients with the device. No formal purpose was announced for the media event.

Top hospital executives, including President and CEO Jim Brexler, hovered as radiation oncologist Dr. Frank Kimsey talked to the media about CyberKnife and later yielded the floor to Gardner, who said he's cancer-free because of the device.

On top of the $7.3 million spent to create a radiosurgery center, Erlanger has launched a heavy advertising campaign for CyberKnife. Hospital spokeswoman Susan Sawyer did not provide a cost estimate of that effort.

Erlanger's publicly appointed board of trustees approved the non-invasive technology in late 2009 after doctors recommended the device for its ability to minimize side- effects and "limit collateral damage" to healthy tissue, Kimsey said.

But trustees at the time acknowledged that finances played into the decision to invest in the hospital's cancer center.

A year before the CyberKnife board vote, Erlanger diagnosed and treated the first round of cancer for 548 patients, compared with 1,560 patients diagnosed and treated initially at Memorial Hospital, state records show. The most recent market share numbers were unavailable Tuesday.

Erlanger is the only local hospital equipped with CyberKnife, but officials at Memorial said they have comparable technology.

CYBERKNIFE FACTS

  • • The entire CyberKnife treatment can be completed within one to five sessions, depending on the tumor and other factors. Most sessions take between 30 minutes and one hour
  • • Non-invasive, so no hospitalization needed
  • • Main side-effect is a "minor acute radiation burn" that can be treated with simple medication
  • • Machine moves with the tumor as a patient breathes

Source: Erlanger Health System

Memorial's Varian Novalis TX "does everything what CyberKnife will do, plus," said Joe Robb, director of oncology services at the private nonprofit hospital. He said Memorial will get Varian's latest linear accelerator -- for traditional radiation care -- within a year.

"I've seen lungs be treated in 15 minutes [on the linear accelerator]," Robb said.

In recent months, Parkridge Medical System has been "looking at acquiring technology capable of using the same image-guided radiation technology," according to hospital spokeswoman Alison Counts.

"It would be a step up of technology we already have," she said, adding that the for-profit hospital plans to buy a machine similar to CyberKnife within six months.

Unlike Erlanger, Memorial and Parkridge are private and therefore not required to disclose figures to the public.

Since treatments began three months ago, Erlanger has treated about 40 patients with CyberKnife, which is best up against a single tumor.

"We can change the beam shape 150 different directions," Kimsey said. "A tumor shaped like a dog bone? We can treat it."

Staff writer Ansley Haman contributed reporting.

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