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Dad, son share neutron bond at Fermilab

Physicist Tom Kroc (left) who heads up NeutrTherapy facility Fermilab program thsaved his father Richard's life pose for phooutside treatment

Physicist Tom Kroc (left), who heads up the Neutron Therapy facility at Fermilab, the program that saved his father Richard's life, pose for a photo outside the treatment room at Fermilab in Batavia, Tuesday, December 11, 2012. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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How it works

According to the neutron therapy program at Fermilab, conventional radiation — photon (x-ray) and electron radiation — are low linear-energy transfer (LET) radiations that damage DNA strands, and thus destroy bad cells, by activating radicals produced from atomic interactions.

Neutrons, on the other hand, are high LET radiation and the damage is done primarily by nuclear interactions. If a tumor cell is damaged by low LET radiation it could repair itself and keep growing. With high LET radiation, that chance is small.

That’s why fast neutrons can generally control large tumors, because unlike low LET radiation, neutrons do not depend on oxygen to kill the cancer cells and are not affected by the stage of the cancer cells. Too often large tumors have spread to other parts of the body before the patient seeks treatment. In these cases neutrons can be used to control the primary tumor, but chemotherapy must be used to limit the spread of cancer through the rest of the body.

The effectiveness of neutron therapy depends on the type of cancer. Areas of the body where neutron therapy may be effective include the head and neck (salivary glands, tongue, pharynx, oral cavity, nasopharynx); chest (mediastinum, pleura, lung); abdomen and pelvis (prostate, kidney, uterus); extremities and trunk (soft tissue, bone, cartilage); and skin (melanoma).

It can also be used to relieve symptoms (palliation) from large tumors and metastasis from neutron-sensitive tumors.

Updated: January 22, 2013 6:06AM

Richard Kroc doesn’t necessarily want to be a poster boy for cancer treatments.

He makes an exceptionally good one, however. The Batavia man is 86 years old but looks much younger; still has a sharp mind that includes a quick wit; and keeps an odometer on his belt to record the miles he walks each day.

Kroc beat prostate cancer back in 1996, but what gives his success story an extra positive twist is the fact the neutron therapy that knocked the disease from his body was done at Fermilab in a program now run by his only child.

Tom Kroc was working in the therapy program under its long time director Arlene Lennox back then. But that’s not the reason Richard Kroc, living in Ohio at the time, moved in with his son’s family in Batavia for a month and began treatment. The elder Kroc’s dad had died from prostate cancer, so he did his research thoroughly because he wanted to make sure he was seeking treatment that would offer the best chance of beating the disease.

The fact his son was an important part of that unique treatment only made the decision easier.

Tom Kroc, who took over as head of the program four years ago, has always been a science nerd. Richard, a retired engineer, describes his offspring as a quiet, studious kid who, as early as fifth grade, was reading Popular Science from cover to cover. In sixth grade he announced he was going to be an atomic scientist.

The younger Kroc did indeed get a degree in high energy physics, which is how he ended up at Fermilab. The neutron therapy program, which blends advanced medical science with accelerator physics, has been going on at Fermi since 1975 when grant money from the American Cancer Institute sponsored clinical trials among a number of neutron therapy facilities. But those trials in the ’70s and ’80s produced mixed results, due to the lack of uniformity among those facilities including the energy of their beams, said Tom Kroc. The effectiveness of neutron therapy is dependent on the strength of the beam, he noted, and Fermilab’s beam is the most powerful in the United States.

Without definitive trials, few in the medical profession are aware of how successful neutron therapy has been in treating certain forms of cancer. Physicians familiar with the positive results in the early decades have either died or retired, he said, leaving many prospective patients unaware of this potentially life-saving option.

Still, over three decades, the Fermilab neutron center treated more than 3,100 patients. Then, in May of 2003, treatments came to a halt when one of the hospitals ended its involvement. In December of 2004, Northern Illinois University announced plans to revive this therapy through a unique partnership with Fermi because studies concluded it was superior in treating some types of cancer. Dennis Hastert, U.S. House Speaker at the time, helped secure federal appropriations of $2.7 million to fund The Northern Illinois University Institute for Neutron Therapy at Fermilab, one of only two sites in the U.S. offering this treatment.

The center currently sees only 20 to 30 patients a year. Kroc hopes those numbers raise dramatically as the program looks to improve visibility through more physician networking. The institute has been distributing case studies on its patients to Chicago-area physicians for years, and NIU has been conducting its own studies to develop research papers. And the Fermilab facility is being upgraded to provide even more precise and effective treatments.

As sharp as he is even at age 86, the senior Kroc doesn’t pretend to understand everything about neutron therapy and how it works. One thing he knows for sure: He’s been cancer-free for 13 years.

“I’m a big fan of these folks,” Richard said. “I spread the word about this place every chance I get.”

And that makes him a darn good poster boy.

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