IDAHO FALLS, Idaho--An injection and a few minutes in a gentle beam of neutrons may someday ease the pain of severe rheumatoid arthritis for thousands of Americans.
In collaboration with the Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, physicist Jacquelyn Yanch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has devised a new way to kill the synovium, the lining that overgrows and ruins a joint afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis. She is testing the technique on rabbits and hopes to test it on humans in a few years.
Yanch injects a boron compound into an arthritic joint and exposes the joint to a beam of subatomic particles called neutrons. The boron absorbs some of the neutrons and forms a radioactive substance that quickly decays. Radiation from the decay kills the synovium and vanishes as soon as the neutron beam is turned off, since boron itself is not radioactive.
In helping develop the new arthritis treatment, INEEL, the DOE's leading nuclear technology laboratory, is applying and expanding its nuclear expertise. Advancing nuclear technologies is one of INEEL's assigned missions. For more than 10 years INEEL has conducted research on boron neutron capture therapy, a treatment for brain tumors that exploits the same interaction between boron and neutrons.
"This is an application for certain key technologies we've developed from the cancer program," said INEEL physicist David Nigg, who is collaborating with Yanch. "We're excited about it."
INEEL is studying the speeds and trajectories of the neutrons in the beam so Yanch and her coworkers can better estimate how much radiation they are administering.
The new technique should be more effective than surgery, which often fails to remove all the diseased tissue. It should be safer than an injection of a radioactive material, which kills the synovium, but leaves radioactivity in the body.