WVU Cancer Institute donates radiation therapy equipment to aid developing nations

MORGANTOWN — The WVU Cancer Institute is helping to advance cancer care in developing nations by donating gently used radiation therapy equipment.

The Department of Radiation Oncology is donating patient positioning and immobilization equipment worth about $75,000 to Radiating Hope, a Utah-based nonprofit group that provides radiation equipment, training, and education to benefit cancer patients in developing countries where treatment resources are limited.

Radiation Oncology Manager Joanne Horgan said the WVU Cancer Institute upgraded its immobilization system last year, opting for newer technology that is more lightweight and versatile. The old equipment was temporarily placed in storage, but she noted that space is limited at the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center.

As the Department sought to make room to bring in new equipment, Horgan reached out to colleagues in the radiation oncology field for ways to repurpose the old equipment. They connected her with Radiating Hope.

“We’re all about the patient; we’re all about people,” Horgan said. “If we can’t use this equipment and someone can, we want to make that happen. They always say, ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ We want someone to be able to use these. They’re in great shape. We just have better equipment now.”

Radiation therapy works by targeting cancer cells to damage their DNA. Immobilization devices ensure that patients remain still and in the correct position for every radiation treatment, which must target a precise area of the body to be effective.

The WVU Cancer Institute donation to Radiating Hope includes patient positioning and immobilization equipment for head and neck, breast, lung, and pelvis radiation therapy treatment delivery, as well as two stereotactic body radiation therapy immobilization systems used to treat multiple areas of the body.

Radiating Hope Executive Director Tom Ladd noted that many cancers – such as cervical, skin and throat cancers – can be treated easily with the right equipment; however, patients diagnosed in developing nations often return home for palliative care due to a lack of treatment resources. Radiating Hope has placed 24 radiation therapy machines in 10-15 countries around the world, but supplemental equipment is not always readily available.

“These facilities might have a linear accelerator, but they may not have immobilizing gear,” Ladd said. “They’ll still go ahead and treat the patient, but this immobilizing equipment allows them to treat so much more effectively and keep the patient exactly where they need them to be, so the radiation hits the exact tumor spot. That donation is key, and we send a lot of equipment like that around the world.”

Horgan and radiation therapists at the WVU Cancer Institute worked together to compile, catalog, and prepare their equipment for donation. The devices were shipped this week to Florida, where Ladd said they will be stored until Radiating Hope has enough equipment to fill a shipping container to send overseas.

Ladd said WVU’s donation will likely go to Nepal or Tanzania. He noted that a single hospital in Nepal has treated over 1,200 patients with a radiation therapy machine provided in 2019. But it’s not nearly enough: Nepal has a population of roughly 30 million and just three machines nationwide. The U.S. treatment standard is one machine per 100,000 people, he said.

“They have so many more patients than they can treat,” Ladd said. “The need is really great. Everything we do is going to directly help and support the treatment of patients. It’s saving lives.”