Cyclotron now operating in our cancer-busting bunker at SAHMRI

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SAHMRI’s Prab Takhar with India Wallace who holds a sample of radioactive glucose produced by the new $4 million cyclotron which is now operating deep under North Terrace. Picture: Matt Turner Source: News Limited

 

Published by: BRAD CROUCH, HEALTH REPORTER Sunday Mail (SA) April 04, 2015 8:00PM

 SAHMRI physicist Prab Takar inside the most secure bunker in South Australia. Picture: Mark Brake Source: News Corp Australia

SAHMRI physicist Prab Takar inside the most secure bunker in South Australia. Picture: Mark Brake Source: News Corp Australia

THE cyclotron — it sounds like the name of a character from fictional sci-fi action series Transformers.

But this $4 million machine, hidden behind 2.5m thick walls and buried 20m underground to guard against errant radiation, is set to transform lives.

The particle accelerator at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute has just come on line, belting out radiation which, when creating critical isotopes for cancer research, would rip through a mammal’s body.

In the past month, 23 people have been injected with the radioactive tracers which glow and show exactly where the cancer is.

It is ideal for personalised care — telling oncologists whether they should cut, treat with chemotherapy or use the blunt force of radiotherapy. And then it shows just how the radiotherapy is working.

People who stand to benefit from the investment include India Wallace, 54, from Forest Range.

Diagnosed with breast cancer more than a decade ago, she has relied on isotopes flown from Melbourne to track her disease. But with a short shelf life, even a slight delay rendered them worthless.

“If a plane was delayed there was a real problem — and when you are dealing with cancer you want answers now, not tomorrow,” she said.

“My daughter Ruby is now approaching 25. For a young woman like her, having this machine in South Australia should she ever need it — and we obviously hope she won’t — is a huge bonus.

“When you have cancer you don’t want to wait for answers, you need it fast.”

Cyclotron wizard Prab Takhar is the man conjuring up the golden potions that can help cure cancer and reckons it can also help the crippled to walk and may fix dementia.

“We are looking at neurology, stem cell research, the potential to make paralysed people walk, dealing with Alzherimer’s — and we are just starting,’ Mr Takhar said.

As director of the Molecular Imaging and Therapy Research Unit within SAHMRI, he oversees the machine in a fortified bunker about the size of a big office.

Its ability to create radioisotopes gives doctors clear evidence of where cancer is spreading, but in doing so it creates radiation requiring the strictest safeguards in SA.

“This allows for quick personalised treatment for cancer — to show if there is cancer and where it is,” Mr Takhar said.

“It helps doctors decide whether to go for surgery, chemo or radiotherapy.”

With SA’s first cyclotron, Mr Takhar and his team can create radioactive glucose sugars that are injected into patients.

The injected sugars glow when they hit cancer cells as a patient undergoes a PET scan either at the Royal Adelaide Hospital or a private scan at Tennyson.

 The rarely-seen inside chamber of the cyclotron. Picture: Mike Burton Source: News Limited

The rarely-seen inside chamber of the cyclotron. Picture: Mike Burton Source: News Limited

“Right now, we have the ability to provide this radioactive compound for each of the 100 patients scanned weekly in the state’s two PET scanners,” Mr Takhar said.

“Additionally, we now have the ability in the state to increase this number to allow all oncology referrals to be met almost immediately.

“The cancers currently being PET scanned with this molecular imaging probe include lung, brain, oesophageal, colorectal carcinoma and some lymphomas.

“The ability to develop new compounds with the cyclotron will enable us to provide probes for other conditions, such as heart disease and debilitating neurological diseases.

“We have had some amazing philanthropic donors but that is what we are now relying on as we hope to use this wonderful machine for its full potential.”

Patients dealing with cancer may be referred for treatment with the cyclotron technology under Medicare.

Originally published as Inside our cancer-busting bunker.