Alonso Gutierrez works with a patient.
At 26, Alonso Gutierrez (’03) is fulfilling his dream of applying the principles of science to patients’ needs. A medical physics Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is developing new technology to make radiation therapy more effective in treating cancers of the stomach.
Unlike cancers of the bone or brain, cancers of the pancreas, bladder, stomach and colon are difficult to isolate and treat because their anatomy changes daily, even hourly, Gutierrez says.
Radiation kills both cancerous and healthy cells, says Gutierrez, who majored in mechanical engineering and physics at SMU. Radiation to the stomach often causes nausea and fatigue and may result in permanent damage to healthy organs.
Gutierrez conducts research under the direction of Thomas Rockwall Mackie, professor of radiology at Wisconsin and creator of tomotherapy, which aims radiation beams at the tumor from numerous angles while keeping the dosage uniform. Tomotherapy combines radiation therapy with CT scanning, enabling precise treatment and minimizing damage to healthy organs.
Gutierrez takes tomotherapy a step further by isolating the cancer with an implanted tissue expander. “The organs in the abdominal cavity are all squashed together,” he says. The expander, which looks like a breast implant, is surgically implanted in the patient before radiation, then inflated before a treatment, pushing the cancerous organ away from healthy ones.
“The expander localizes the tumor and covers it with radiation,” says Gutierrez, who is in the early stages of developing the technique. Tissue expanders have been used for other medical procedures, but he is the first to use them for cancer treatment.
The tissue expander is not his first medical innovation. In a senior engineering design class at SMU, the President’s Scholar and Goldwater Scholar participated on a team that modified an all-terrain vehicle for paraplegic drivers. “In that class we learned to be creative,” Gutierrez says. “We didn’t reject any idea as too outrageous; sometimes those are the ideas that end up working.”
Gutierrez plans to combine medicine, physics and engineering to become a radiation oncology physicist. “Radiation therapy is a team effort,” he says. “The physician knows how much radiation the patient needs. The physicist knows the tools and designs the treatment plan to ensure that the radiation is delivered effectively. You’re really a problem-solver.”