Meet the CyberKnife, a Cancer-Fighting Robot That Gave a Man His Voice Back

The world’s first-known patient to be treated for vocal cord cancer with the robotic device is cured.

Though the CyberKnife has long been used to treat cancers in any location of the body, patient Stephen Wiley is the first to receive treatment with it for vocal cord cancer. (Photo: Accuray)

 

 

Apr 6, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Liana Aghajanian is TakePart's weekend editor. Her work has appeared in ForeignPolicy.com, BBC.com, Los Angeles Times, and TheAtlantic.com.

Cancer takes a toll on everyone it afflicts, but vocal cord cancer patients often pay a particularly high price: They lose their voice. Earlier this year, Stephen Wiley, 59, became the world’s first-known patient to be treated for vocal cord tumors with the CyberKnife, a $7 million device built by the California-based company Accuray.

The physician-controlled robotic device obliterates tumors with high doses of radiation—and it gave Wiley his voice back.

Wiley’s cancer had reduced his voice to a whisper when he started treatment, but after completing 15 treatments with the CyberKnife, given by doctors at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, his voice was back to normal. Better yet, his treatments showed a drastic reduction in normal radiation therapy side effects such as nausea, sores, and swelling.

“With the CyberKnife, I never lost my voice and never lost any weight,” Wiley said in a university press release.

Wiley’s treatment yielded crucial information that physicians are using to make treatment shorter for other people with vocal cord tumors. Though it doesn't get the attention of breast or lung cancer, vocal cord cancer accounts for 200,000 deaths annually worldwide, and its incidence seems to be increasing, according to the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Michigan.

Smoking has been found to have a clear impact on the development of vocal cord cancer. While smoking prevalence has decreased, the number of cigarette smokers worldwide has increased owing to population growth, according to newly published research by the University of Washington.

Only about 200 CyberKnife machines exist, but they're remarkably adaptable. The robotic arm can be used to treat tumors on any part of the body with radiation.

The device comes with one caveat, at least where vocal cord cancer is concerned: Patients must be incredibly still for it to work, which is especially challenging on a part of the body that is constantly moving. Wiley’s doctors had an unorthodox—if somewhat creative— solution: They injected tiny pieces of gold into Wiley’s neck to help the CyberKnife track the movement and adjust. His head was also covered with a mesh mask that kept him from moving.

Since Wiley’s successful series of procedures, doctors have been able to reduce the initial number of treatments each time the device has been used on other patients. It's a promising development, and definitely a better use for robots than vacuuming the floors.