Seattle company develops new technology to help fight breast cancer

SEATTLE -- Five days a week, Darla Morin goes to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for breast cancer treatment. She's already had surgery, chemotherapy, and now she has daily radiation to try to finish the job.

It's Darla's cure. But radiation could also be a curse.

"There's a potential risk, because it was my left breast, for damage to my heart," Morin said. "And when I heard that, my heart sank. Literally! I had not heard that. And the thought of damaging my heart from the radiation was really scary to me."

Darla's radiation oncologist at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance offered her an option that is both cutting edge and surprisingly simple. By taking a deep breath, Darla's heart naturally moves away from her breast.

Technicians put a tiny transponder on her skin that lets them know if her heart moves back into dangerous territory.

"These beacons serve as a GPS system so we can actually track the patient's positioning during treatment in real time," explained Dr. Janice Kim. "That helps to ensure, with confidence, that not only are we hitting the target everyday, but we're also staying away from the heart."

The device is called Calypso, and it was developed in Seattle at Varian Medical Systems. The original version has been used in more than 15,000 cases of prostate cancer, leading local oncologists to ask the company to develop a breast cancer beacon.

Unlike prostate cancer treatment, where the device is implanted internally, the breast cancer version is a sticker that goes outside the body.

"They were so enthusiastic about the benefits to patients and the results in their own internal trials, that it got us very excited here and we said OK, we've got to do this," said Edward Vertatschitsch, General Manager of Varian's Real-Time Tracking Technologies.

The FDA recently cleared Calypso for use in breast cancer.

"It's the equivalent of having a good scope on your rifle," Vertatschitsch said. "They have a great technology for delivering the radiation therapy with a linear accelerator and then we provide the ability to aim that radiation therapy and know you're always hitting the tumor and not the healthy tissue next to it."

Darla is among the first fifty patients to use it.

"Damage to your heart? It's pretty scary to me," she said. "My fears have been relieved greatly. I'm so happy to be here and be part of this."

Darla sees a healthy and happy future for herself that doesn't compromise her heart, to be cancer free.

Only three cancer centers are using the Calypso device right now. In addition to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, it is available at Madigan Army Medical Center and at a center in Sacramento, California.

Walk to Beat Breast Cancer

KOMO 4 is a proud sponsor of the "Do the Puyallup Walk to Beat Breast Bancer," benefiting the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

The walk is this Saturday, Sept. 22. To register, go to