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New cancer therapy may change approach to treatment for many

It's a cancer therapy treatment that could revolutionize how patients approach the disease.

DALLAS – It's a cancer therapy treatment that could revolutionize how patients approach the disease. Former President Jimmy Carter used it, and now he says he's cancer free.

UT Southwestern has a program using the same techniques to treat cancer patients right here in Dallas.

The cutting-edge treatment is a combination that researchers are calling more effective than regular chemotherapy or standard radiation alone. They're using stereotactic radiation, which uses cameras, lasers, and robots.

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"It focuses the radiation with much more precision toward some target that you identify on imaging," said Dr. Robert Timmerman, professor of radiation oncology and neurosurgery at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Timmerman said stereotactic radiation is less toxic than conventional radiotherapy because while radiation beams zero in on a tumor, the normal tissues and immune system are spared.

"It's really a non-invasive, outpatient, painless treatment," he said.

Five or fewer 20-minute sessions is roughly what it takes, rather than the 30-40 sessions over several weeks required by conventional radiation. And, Dr. Timmerman adds, many patients require just one round.

It has the potency of surgery, without the recovery time.

"I think this is one of the more exciting things we've seen in a long time," Timmerman said.

Here's where the magic happens: When stereotactic radiation is coupled with drugs that stimulate the immune system, the results are astounding.

"You treat one tumor — and maybe there are two or three other tumors unable to be targeted — and they regress as well," Timmerman said, noting that collections of cancerous cells don't always show up on scans.

The combined therapy plan worked for former President Carter, and it's one doctors say will help people who have cancers that may have already spread.

"By stimulating the immune system in the brain, in the case of President Carter, then it's possible that the same immune system then will go to the lung and eradicate any tumors that are hiding there as well," Dr. Timmerman said.

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So far, doctors at UT Southwestern are using this therapy to help patients with kidney cancer and prostate cancer. Results have been so impressive that researchers are looking to expand to lung cancer patients next.