Facing 7-foot-9-inch Sun Ming Ming on the basketball court would be a humbling experience indeed. In fact, the 23-year-old from China would be the tallest basketball player ever to stride across an NBA court -- if he could make it there.
Ironically, the challenge facing Sun is the same non-cancerous tumor that is responsible for his imposing height. The growth, which presses against the pituitary gland in the middle of Sun's brain, caused the gland to release high levels of growth hormone during his development -- a condition known as acromegaly.
The hormone made him tall, but it also robbed him of the testosterone needed to develop the stamina, speed and strength necessary for a pro basketball career.
A new surgery could change that, allowing Sun to become quicker and stronger -- paving the way to his NBA dream.
The procedure, called Gamma Knife stereotactic radiosurgery, uses beams of radiation instead of a scalpel. The surgery will take place on Thursday at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"Gamma Knife radiosurgery works by very precisely delivering gamma rays to a tumor," says Dr. Stephen Tatter, co-director of the Gamma Knife Center at Wake Forest and part of the surgical team that will break up Sun's tumor.
Two hundred and one of these gamma rays will be aimed at Sun's head. They will pass harmlessly though his skull and brain until they meet at the tumor. When they intersect, the combined energy will zap the tumor, helping to eliminate it and restore Sun to hormonal normalcy.
The operation is expected to be an outpatient procedure, so Ming will be treated and released following the surgery
Surgery the First Step
Though the procedure will eliminate the tumor responsible for Sun's towering stature, it will take time for his hormone levels to achieve normal levels.
"On average it takes over a year for growth hormone levels to normalize after Gamma Knife treatment alone," Tatter says. "Fortunately, there is a new drug, Somavert (from Pfizer), that blocks the effects of growth hormone."
The combination of the surgery and drug therapy could resolve Sun's condition in a matter of several months, Tatter says. And with time and training, his existing shooting skills and his possible newfound agility and strength could make him a force on the court.
"After the growth hormone is normalized, steady progress toward NBA-stardom over a period of one to three years is possible," he says.
Perhaps more important than bolstering Sun's basketball aspirations, the procedure will likely add years to his life.
"Unsuccessfully treated acromegaly doubles mortality," Tatter says. "In the case of a 22-year-old, this would roughly cut the median lifespan from 56 additional years to 28 additional years."
Most notably, the Gamma Knife will cut the risk of Sun dying from heart disease and stroke -- conditions that kill many with acromegaly in their 30s and 40s.
Not Just for Giants
The procedure holds hope for patients with other conditions as well.
"[Stereotactic radiosurgery] has made a number of previously untreatable conditions treatable," Tatter says. "The largest single example is people with multiple brain metastases that are growing despite other treatment. Previously that diagnosis often lead to a recommendation for hospice care. Now we can offer a 90 percent success rate -- 'local control,' technically -- at one year."
According to a press release from Elekta, the company that manufactures the Gamma Knife, between 40,000 and 50,000 patients are treated with Gamma Knife surgery every year. The press release also says more than 400,000 patients have been treated with the technology so far.