By Jessica Crawford Cancer research is a very exciting and important field, and there is no time to waste. People are dying daily from various forms of cancer at an alarming rate.
Former Liberal High School graduate Jerimy Polf is actively involved in a new form of treatment that drastically reduces the negative symptoms of radiation treatment.
“I am a physics professor here at M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston,” Polf Ph.D. explained. “We have built this new facility for treating cancer with beams of protons. Standard cancer therapy is done with X-rays. The patient is treated with X-rays. Instead of the X-rays, we are using the protons.
“We make a proton beam and accelerate it up to very high energy, almost up to the speed of light,” he continued. “Then we shoot it into the tumor, and the proton beam interacts with the tumor and delivers a lot of radiation into the tumor and kills it that way.”
Polf specialized in treating lung cancer. With the standard X-ray radiation treatment, patients often experience pneumonia or lung inflammation following X-ray treatment. According to Polf, proton treatment does not cause such dramatic side affects.
“I specialize in treating lung tumors,” he said. “A lot of time when you treat a tumor in the lung, the patient would develop pneumonia afterwards – basically pneumonia or a constant inflammation in the lung that won’t go away.
“So with this new type of treatment, we can almost get rid of that,”
he added. “The lung is really close to the heart, so we can spare any dose to the heart to get rid of secondary cardiac complications.”
When X-ray therapy is used, the radiation basically is spread throughout the body. With the new treatment Polf is using and studying, the treatment is extremely localized.
“Standard X-rays will just shoot all the way through you,” Polf explained. “So they will give a radiation dose to the tissue all the way through. You get the tumor, but you get everything else in the path as well.
“We can tune the proton beam so it can basically deliver all of the dose into the tumor and spare the tissue around it,” he continued.
“We reduce all the complications that occur from the treatment that way. We hit the tumor and spare the tissue around it, of course, we hit the tissue a little, but it is greatly reduced.”
Due to the early stages study and success, insurance companies have been hesitant to cover such treatment. However, according to Polf, they are getting much more apt to cover the proton beam treatment.
“Insurance companies are starting to cover it. It is not standard yet, but it is something we are learning how to get them to cover,”
he said. “As it becomes more and more widespread and it is becoming a more standard type of treatment, now they are covering it more easily. We still have lots of hoops to jump through to get them to cover it, but they do.”
According to Polf, the proton beam treatment tends to be more expensive than the standard X-ray radiation treatments.
“Comparable to standard treatment, depending on the type of tumor and how we treat it,” he said. “It is 20 to 50 percent more expensive than the standard X-ray treatment.”
Surprisingly, proton treatment is not a new concept. Actually, scientists became aware of it in the 40s after the building of the atomic bomb.
“The idea was put out there in the 1940s by some people who were working on the atomic bomb project,” he explained. “After that finished, these guys went and started working on this idea and it took about 30 years to get it to work.
“They started treating people with proton beams in 1980 just experimentally and the first full scale treatment on the hospital level like ours started in the late 90s,” he added. “We are actually the third hospital in the United States to treat people this way.”
Not only has he been studying and utilizing this new brand of therapy, the American Cancer Society has awarded him a grant to continue his studies.
“The initial grant is the smaller one to get me some equipment and get me started,” he said. “And then once I prove to them that I can produce data, it will be much more.
“The initial grant is $30,000 a year,” he stated. “After two years, I will go back and tell them what I was able to do and then at that point they can appoint up to $250,000 a year, but that is in the future – we haven’t gotten there yet.”
Jerimy originally started high school in Turpin, Okla., however, he transferred to Liberal in order to participate in their baseball program. His sister, Kristi Winner, remained in Turpin.
“Jerimy graduated from Liberal and Kristi graduated from Turpin,” his mother Sherrilyn Polf said. “He started in Turpin, but they wouldn’t put baseball in and he wanted to play baseball so he transferred to Liberal.
“And he still plays baseball,” she added with a laugh. “He plays on a team down there – all doctors.”
In 1992, Jerimy graduated from Liberal High School then spent one year at Seward County Community College. Then he was on to Oklahoma State University where it took him several years to find his niche.
“At Seward County, it was just general classes, it was my first year of college,” he explained. “When I got to OSU, originally I went to study architecture, and I began to realize I couldn’t draw so that was a problem.
“Then I was a philosophy major for a while,” he continued. “I liked that because it was studying problems but you never really got an answer. Then I went into physics. I always liked math and science. It took several years at OSU before I finally found my major – I took my time.”
Jerimy and his wife, Holly, live in Houston where Holly is involved in veterinarian radiology. After one more year of her residency, according to Polf, their lives just might change.
“She works as a veterinarian radiologist in a hospital in Houston,”
he spoke proudly of his wife. “No kids yet, she has another year of residency, then we will have kids, she has it all planned out.”
But in the meantime, the team of Jerimy and Holly Polf will continue to do their best to better the lives of cancer patients for humans and animals.