UC-Davis Neurosurgeon Tests New Technology To Heal Both
DAVIS, Calif. — James Boggan, M.D., is one of the most highly regarded neurosurgeons in the nation. In the operating room — sometimes participating in surgeries that last up to 30 hours — he has helped hundreds overcome devastating brain disorders and illnesses. Yet today the professor at the University of California-Davis is most enthused about the possibility of doing fewer traditional surgeries.The university is in the process of assuming ownership of a nuclear reactor at McClellan Air Force Base that can be used to treat certain brain tumors. The experimental treatment, called boron-neutron-capture therapy, uses low-energy neutrons to kill cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. The patient is given boron in advance of the treatment, which is absorbed by tumor cells, which then attract the neutrons.“Preliminary studies show that a single treatment provides outcomes equal to current modalities—surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. This means that in one day it will be possible to provide the same results as six weeks of treatment,” Boggan says.According to Boggan, the idea of using neutron-capture therapy in a medical context is not necessarily new; when the neutron was first discovered in the 1930s it was suggested that it could be used to selectively provide high doses of radiation in a localized fashion. Today, the UC-Davis Medical Center is the largest existing research program developing the experimental brain tumor treatment in the western United States. The McClellan reactor is the only one in the West capable of providing the neutrons for that treatment.Boggan notes that the university’s eventual ownership of the reactor also means that the university will have a self-supporting research tool, since corporate and government entities will be able to use it for a variety of applications. It could, for instance, continue to be employed for its original purpose — to detect early states of corrosion and structural problems in airplanes. The reactor also presents opportunities for nuclear engineering, genetics, elemental analysis for geological samples, immunology, gamma ray scanning, environmental research and animal science, among many other possibilities.For Boggan, the opportunity to provide a more short-term and targeted treatment option is inspiring. “Taking care of patients—children and adults—is the most satisfying role for me,” he says, adding that this passion has made him “one of the busiest surgeons in (the UC-Davis Medical Center) system.” He takes special pride in improving the quality of people’s lives, whether it is treating cancer or a problem such as hyperhidrosis, a neurodysfunction that causes excessive sweating.“All of the conditions I treat are extremely important to my patients,” he says, adding that there is “great honor in being helpful to them.”In addition to the neutron-capture therapy program, Boggan is principal investigator on other research projects, including the Center of Excellence for Last Applications in Medicine. This program, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, advances the medical uses of laser technology. One of only five in the country, the UC-Davis center is interdisciplinary, involving Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and multiple schools on the campus, in order to encourage consideration of a range of new applications. Two of the most promising possibilities are DNA analysis and early prostate and breast tumor detection and treatment.Boggan is also involved in a new and specialized surgery team dedicated to the detection and therapy of tumors located at the base of the skull. Such tumors were previously considered inoperable and can be quite destructive, involving the brain, neck and face. By employing a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach encompassing specialties such as neurosurgery, otolaryngology and plastic surgery, skull-base tumors are now being successfully treated.Boggan’s tenure at UC-Davis began in 1985. His previous positions include a faculty appointment at The University of California at San Francisco, after earning his A.B. at Columbia University and M.D. at the University of Chicago. In addition to a full schedule of clinical, research and teaching responsibilities, he also contributes his time and expertise to committees and public appearances on behalf of community and health care issues, such as child abuse prevention, mandatory helmet use and spina bifida.While he enjoys the challenges of solving research problems and how that process improves medical practice, Boggan’s first career is still surgery. “Research is definitely exciting, but my place in the lab is primarily to be the oil pump for an engine — our team of great researchers really generates the power,” he says. “There is no bigger mystery than the brain, and there is nothing more exciting than performing surgery on the brain and helping patients. It’s the whole reason I went into medicine.”
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