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Penn Medicine on Nov. 13, 2021. Credit: Riley Guggenhime

A team of researchers at PennVet and Penn Medicine are exploring a new radiation technique to treat oral cancer in dogs.

Led by Perelman School of Medicine radiation oncologist Keith Cengel and a School of Veterinary Medicine oncologist Brian Flesner, the team employs a new radiation technique called FLASH, which could improve existing palliative radiation by reducing the treatment cycle to just a few visits. A 13-year-old Labrador retriever named Maple is the first patient to receive this treatment.

According to Penn Today, FLASH makes use of a “precisely directed proton beam” and can “destroy cancer cells, while penetrating deeply into tissue,” allowing for faster and more effective treatment. If results are promising, the technique has the potential to be applied to human patients, Flesner told Penn Today.

Researchers ultimately plan to gather data and perform trials on nine dog patients, who receive treatment at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center when human patients are gone. 

“It’s a great opportunity to potentially help dogs as we are learning more about how this works,” Cengel told Penn Today.

Unlike traditional approaches, researchers believe FLASH to be less toxic due to its highly technical and careful manipulations of the proton beam. The team has worked extensively to ensure the beam hits the cancerous tumor without exposing it to other parts of the body.

Dog patients who undergo this treatment in its trial stage must meet strict criteria. Pets must have a disease that is not curable by surgery or radiation, and the tumors must have the right dimensions for the proton beam. If the initial trials are successful, researchers hope to expand the scope of patients eligible to receive FLASH.

Although the costs of FLASH are currently high, researchers are optimistic they will eventually decline as the technology advances.

“Right now the technology is difficult and very expensive, but that’s only because it’s new and fancy,” Cengel told Penn Today. “Once we work with it more, I don’t see a reason why this won’t become more available.”