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Physical Attraction: LSU and Mary Bird Perkins get Together to Save Lives

LSU’s championship spirit extends beyond the end of football season and infuses our nationally recognized programs all year long. Our championship spirit both on the field and in the fields of research, education, and community service represents some of the University’s most important victories.

LSU is home to a first-class medical physics program run in partnership with the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, or MBPCC – one of only 11 such accredited programs in the entire country. The advances being made through this unusual collaboration are not just contributing to theoretical models and lab tests – they are actually saving lives.

Medical physics is a branch of applied physics concerned primarily with applying the concepts and methods of physics to the diagnosis and treatment of diseases – specifically, in this case, cancer. In cancer care, medical physicists serve as an integral part of the medical treatment team, working closely with physicians to ensure that their patients receive the highest quality of care possible. Part of the uniqueness of medical physics graduate programs is that they deal with training students in the highly technical aspects of radiological equipment, as well as researching avenues to produce new technology capable of improving the quality of life and more efficient treatment of cancer.

In the fall of 2004, LSU and MBPCC signed a collaboration that would link academia with industry, becoming a successful example of a public-private partnership ready to address and meet community needs. With a major commitment from both parties in place, the immediate task at hand was elevating the stature of the medical physics program, while dramatically expanding cancer research efforts.

The first step toward reaching this goal was the hiring of Dr. Kenneth Hogstrom, who had previously served as chair of the radiation physics department at the University of Texas’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. While there, Hogstrom also served as director of the graduate medical physics program at the University’s graduate school for biomedical science.

“I was initially attracted to the program because of the unique benefits brought about by the University’s cooperation with Mary Bird,” said Hogstrom. “It is rare to see a partnership like this work so smoothly, but when one does, the research – and the patients – reap the rewards.”

Most recently, the medical physics program has garnered national attention for its work with TomoTherapy Inc. The company initially provided the program with a three-year grant, now in its final year of funding under Hogstrom, the principal investigator.

TomoTherapy is a relatively new type of intensity modulated radiation therapy, or IMRT, which treats patients with X-rays approximately 60 times stronger than typical diagnostic tests. Each TomoTherapy machine delivers X-rays to the patient by rapidly rotating a thin, fan-like beam around the patient in a spiral pattern.

MBPCC and LSU have focused primarily on researching the use of TomoTherapy for superficial chest wall irradiation of post mastectomy breast cancer patients and treatment of certain cancers of the scalp with complete scalp irradiation. For many patients, this is a vast improvement from the traditional employment of irradiation through electron beam therapy, which can sometimes cause minor complications for the patient. TomoTherapy treatment delivers a very uniform and targeted dose of radiation only to the cancerous area, sparing the surrounding normal tissue from any devastating damage.

Several graduate students and adjunct faculty have been involved in the TomoTherapy work in the medical physics program. Michael Ashenafi, former graduate student; Dr. Robert Boyd, his supervisor at MBPCCC; and postdoctoral fellow Dr. Tae Kyu, developed a study comparing electron beam therapy with TomoTherapy for post-mastectomy irradiation of the chest wall.

Koren Smith, a recent program graduate; Dr. John Gibbons, her supervisor at MBPCC; and medical physicist Dr. Dennis Cheek recently completed a study of the accuracy of TomoTheraphy dose calculations for irradiation of superficial patient cancers. Based on the results of these studies, post-mastectomy patients are now being treated with TomoTherapy with more uniform and milder skin reactions than previously possible.

LSU’s and MBPCC’s solid commitment to the continuing development of the medical physics program has brought major restructuring over the course of the past three years. MBPCC has added six new medical physics positions at the cancer center, and LSU has added a new faculty position. After being accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs Inc., or CAMPEP, for the maximum period of five years, the program received another boost from Dr. Charles Smith, one of LSU’s most prominent alumni.

Smith contributed 30 percent of the funding for an endowed chair to match the 30 percent raised by MBPCC donors. The chair, one of the most important building blocks for an up-and-coming program of any type, became fully funded when the LSU Board of Regents provided the remaining 40 percent necessary for the $1 million chair. It was recently awarded to Hogstrom in recognition of his record of achievements and continued efforts in the field.

“Endowed chairs are one of the greatest assets a university has,” Hogstrom said. “In addition to providing long-term stability for our program, it will provide funding for research and help to recruit outstanding, talented faculty and graduate students to the medical physics program in the future.”

The best part about endowed chairs is that they provide vital, ongoing research funding rather than a one-time cash gift. With the growing faculty and medical physics staff, increasing financial support, and peer accreditation, the medical physics program is poised to bring incredible accolades to LSU and MBPCC and a quality standard of life for cancer patients everywhere.

Ashley Berthelot | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2007

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