It looks like something out of a science-fiction movie, but the new TrueBeam linear accelerator at Cape Regional Medical Center's Cancer Center is making a real difference for patients.

The $4 million machine allows doctors to administer Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy, or SBRT, which targets certain cancers with pinpoint accuracy, increasing effectiveness of - and in some cases dramatically shortening - the course of treatment. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Medical Director of Radiation Oncology Albert DeNittis led the push to bring the machine to Cape May. He said this and other additions have made Cape Regional a first-rate cancer center and put it among the best in the country for prostate cancer treatment.

"We're well ahead of the curve with the SBRT program," DeNittis said. "Compared to what's going on nationally, I think we're one of five centers in the country that really has (this robust a SBRT program.)"

The TrueBeam is the latest radiation oncology machine from medical equipment manufacturer Varian Medical Systems. It combines industry-leading radiosurgery technology with state-of-the-art imaging equipment, which allows it to better locate and target cancer. Cape Regional's has been in use since May 2012, and handles about 28 patients per day, nearly double what the hospital's previous machine did, DeNittis said.

The key improvement of the TrueBeam machine is its ability to precisely focus radiation using its array of 120 lead "leaves," which channel radiation into a beam accurate to less than a millimeter. The machine also can vary its dose rate on-the-fly, and while older machines spread radiation unevenly, TrueBeam's administers doses uniformly throughout the targeted area. Because the machine's head can rotate around the patient, treatments can be completed in as little as 15 minutes, whereas they previously took more than an hour.

SBRT is useful in treating prostate and lung cancer, and it also can be used on previously irradiated areas, which is not possible with other, less precise forms of treatment. All this adds up to treatment that is highly effective and can, in some cases, be administered in just a handful of visits instead of as many as 40.

The TrueBeam machine has been a boon in Cape May County, which had the highest cancer rates of any county in New Jersey from 2006 to 2010, according to the state Department of Health. While patients previously had to travel to Philadelphia or further to receive top treatment, now they can be accommodated closer to home.

"They're not taking 35 or 40 trips someplace that's an hour-and-a-half to two hours away from here," said Tom Piratzky, Cape Regional vice president of public relations and marketing. "They're getting it right here."

While this dramatic reduction in the course of treatment is unique to cancers targeted by SBRT, other improvements offered with the machine make it highly effective at treating a broad range of cancers. Because the machine administers doses so precisely, it limits damage to non-cancerous tissues, according to Varian public relations director Meryl Ginsberg.

The machine also is capable of an imaging technique called Cone Beam computed tomography, which allows Cape Regional's oncologists to capture high-definition, three-dimensional images of the body. With these images, the team is able to pinpoint the location of the cancer immediately before treatment, concentrating the dose on the affected organ while avoiding collateral damage.

"Small lung cancers move when we breathe, and the prostate gland can move from day to day," said Dr. David Cho, a member of the Cape Regional radiation oncology team. "As we target the different organs, we're able to improve our chances of cure by being able to see the target better."

Cape Regional has long been helped by the community, and the TrueBeam is no exception. So far, the capital campaign for the machine has raised about $3.5 million.

DeNittis, who has been recognized as a national leader in oncology by Philadelphia Magazine and U.S. News and World Report, was brought to Cape Regional three years ago to make its cancer center one of the best around. Now, with the TrueBeam in action, Cape Regional is well on its way.

"I wanted to bring the cancer center up into a cutting-edge place," DeNittis said. "(Hospital administration) did a great job."

Contact Braden Campbell:

609-272-7415