MHFV Theranostics
Radiologist Jerry Froelich, MD, (right) and Brad Humphrey, M Health Fairview’s manager of theranostics and nuclear medicine, helped bring the latest in cancer imaging technology to our new radiotheranostics department.

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M Health Fairview opens new radiotheranostics unit for next frontier in cancer treatment

A new department at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center is bringing the next frontier in cancer treatment directly to patients with leading-edge targeted radiotherapy equipment and expertise.

  • November 08, 2021
  • By Staff Writer

M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center opened a new, five-bed radiotheranostics unit earlier this month. “Theranostics” is a term that combines diagnosis and therapy. Radiotheranostics refers to the use of small doses of targeted radioactive drugs to both find and treat cancer.

Radiotheranostics is a new branch of nuclear medicine and is one of the next frontiers in precision cancer treatment. Our dedicated theranostics department is the first of its kind in the Twin Cities and will serve as a hub for the Midwest.

So, what is theranostics?

“Every type of cancer cell we study has a very unique receptor found on the outside of it. Recently, new drugs have been developed that will bind to that very specific receptor – and only that receptor,” said Brad Humphrey, M Health Fairview’s manager of theranostics and nuclear medicine. “Expanding on that, pharmacies have figured out how to attach a radioactive molecule to that drug to create a radiotherapy that only targets these cancerous cells.”

To find the cancer, our teams first injects a safe, low-dose radioactive drug into the body. It travels through the bloodstream, binding to the specific receptor on cancerous cells. Once that process is complete, our theranostics care team uses a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner to scan the patient’s body and spot areas where the cancer is present. This technique finds both the original cancer and any metastases – or areas in the body where the cancer has spread.

Once doctors have found the cancer, they use a second therapeutic radioactive drug that attaches to the cancerous cells and destroys them without damaging the surrounding area – unlike traditional chemotherapy or radiation therapy, which is less targeted and may have side effects for other parts of the body.

Not only will our new radiotheranostics department offer new targeted cancer-fighting drugs, it will also offer the latest in cancer imaging technology to support the “diagnostic” component of theranostics. Our radiotheranostics unit is equipped with a new, advanced digital PET scanner, the latest in imaging technology. It provides images faster with improved resolution and requires less radiation to function.

Thanks to the new PET scanner, we’ll be able to offer a 50 percent increase in PET appointment slots – significantly reducing wait times for cancer patients. While we’ve offered targeted radiotherapy since 2018, our new unit will provide a dedicated space for theranostics patients within this rapidly expanding field.

“In the past, patients came to the hospital and we sent them to a traditional hospital room. Now, we’ve built our own space and have our own nurses,” said M Health Fairview Director of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging  Jerry Froelich, MD. “Patients come in, it’s quieter, and they have the same people taking care of them every time.”

By investing in a dedicated radiotheranostics unit with leading-edge equipment today, we are well-positioned as nuclear medicine continues to grow and evolve. Researchers are developing new biomarkers – the drugs that only bond to a specific cancer receptor – for different types of cancers. They are currently available for thyroid and neuroendocrine cancer. A biomarker for prostate cancer has been approved to start use next year. A biomarker for breast cancer, and another more generic one for many types of cancer, are also in the works.

“My dream has always been to make us one of the most innovative nuclear medicine departments in the Midwest. We’re not only growing clinical trials through the University of Minnesota, we’re delivering these new therapies quickly to patients through M Health Fairview,” said Froelich. “Our set-up will allow us to continually innovate and expand within this rapidly-growing field.”

Froelich added that targeted radiotherapy is being approved for earlier and earlier use in treating cancers.

“The goal is to at least stabilize the tumors and get them to a state where they’re not progressing,” said Froelich. “With some of the newer advances, we’re hoping to not only be able to stop the progression but shrink the tumor and – in some cases – cure the cancer, if it’s detected and treated early enough.”