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Radiation therapy that works for children

by Abigail Klein Leichman, Israel21c

July 30, 2014 | 10:35 am

<em>MercyBeam radiation therapy targets tumors more precisely than traditional radiation and can be tolerated by children under 3. Image via Shutterstock.com</em>

MercyBeam radiation therapy targets tumors more precisely than traditional radiation and can be tolerated by children under 3. Image via Shutterstock.com

An Israeli industrial engineer, who spent months in the hospital following a paragliding accident, saw the limitations of X-ray technology and vowed to make it better.

After developing a real-time X-ray detector and an X-ray explosive identification system, he and his team of physicists invented MercyBeam, a patented lens to improve radiation therapy for patients of all ages, with particular advantages to children.

Co-founder and CEO Ze’ev Harel said his 4-year-old company, Convergent R.N.R., is collaborating with medical physicists and oncologists at top hospitals including Sheba Medical Center in Israel and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. It’s also in preliminary discussions with others including Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio and Auckland City Hospital in New Zealand.

“They all like our approach,” Harel said. “When we presented our technology to Hadassah and Sheba medical centers and asked for their feedback, the bottom line of those meetings was, ‘When can you install [the] first system at our hospital?’ It was very encouraging; there was not even one criticism.”

Current radiation therapy treatments are problematic. They use very high-energy radiation and hit not only the tumor but also the healthy surrounding tissue. They require large and expensive machinery in specially shielded treatment rooms, so they are not an option for clinics and hospitals that cannot afford these measures. In addition, current radiation therapy isn’t appropriate for children under 3.

MercyBeam solves all these problems, Harel said.

The lens collects most of the three-dimensional X-rays coming out of any standard X-ray generator and converges them toward the tumor. This increases the therapeutic dose where it’s needed, while surrounding tissue gets little or no exposure. The converging technology enables the use of photon-energy X-rays 100 times lower than those used by current systems based on linear accelerators (LINACs).

MercyBeam is small, light and relatively inexpensive — the system will cost an estimated $700,000 to $1 million as opposed to $4 million or more for a LINAC or $80 million for a proton-beam system. MercyBeam would not need to be enclosed in a “vault” and could even be assembled in mobile treatment vans for remote or deprived areas.

Dr. Dror Alezra, chief physicist at Sheba Medical Center’s radiotherapy department, said MercyBeam allows for a less toxic and more universally available treatment.

“It’s the first time it will be possible to concentrate an X-ray beam,” he said. “This is important for treating children. Currently, the parent cannot stay in the treatment room and so the child is alone and may have to be sedated. With MercyBeam, an adult could stay by their side with very light shielding, because of the low and concentrated energy.”

Alezra said the MercyBeam technique will work best on a small target, such as the skull or spine, because of the low volume. 

Of course, the technology does not come without its challenges.

“It was not easy to find the perfect raw metal materials for the MercyBeam lens. We checked all over the world and found good enough quality only in Germany,” Harel said.

“You have to grow the metal crystals and cut them in a very precise way, and then polish them. Our lenses are built from several rings, each of a different metal so that all the beams will converge into the correct volume of treatment. If we can grow the crystals ourselves that would reduce the price of the lens itself by approximately 70 percent.”

He said the only lenses he’s aware of that are similar to MercyBeam are used by NASA to check for X-ray radiation in space, “and it costs millions and millions to do one set of lenses.”

Now the issue is raising enough money to build a prototype. 

“The Office of the Chief Scientist granted us $700,000 for which we need to get matching funds,” Harel said.

In addition to conventional fundraising, Convergent R.N.R. came up with a twist on crowdfunding called “Contribute-Match-Donate.” The company will match every contribution, and once the MercyBeam systems are in serial production, will donate units to hospitals and clinics all over the world in the name of the donors. Online contributions can be made in someone’s honor or memory to be published on the Convergent R.N.R. website and social media.

Convergent R.N.R. is headquartered in Tirat Carmel, close to the “knowledge base” in the Haifa area, named for its presence of research and development facilities for global X-ray technology firms such as Philips and GE.

Its work with MercyBeam feels different from years ago, when Harel led the development of novel software and hardware used worldwide for proofreading Torah scrolls. 

“The Torah scrolls project was challenging and concluded successfully — serving the Jewish world,” he said. “The MercyBeam project is extremely challenging, but this time we’ll serve all of humankind.”

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