Major advances in the treatment of cancer with radiotherapy were forecast today (Thursday 10th November 2005) by a leading Oxford cancer expert.

Professor Gillies McKenna says: “Now that we understand what makes cancer cells different, the time is ripe for significant advances in radiotherapy research that will make the treatment of cancer more targeted and much more effective.”

Speaking at a symposium at Blenheim Palace to mark the centenary of the birth of Louis Harold Gray, the leading English radiologist after whom the unit of energy for absorbed radiation was named*, Professor McKenna outlined his vision for the new Institute for Radiation Biology Research at Oxford University.

Professor McKenna was recently headhunted back from the USA to lead the new institute, which is jointly funded by Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and the University of Oxford.

Professor McKenna, adds: “This is an exciting time to be involved in radiotherapy research, as there are so many new possibilities on the horizon.

“Radiotherapy has proved itself over the last century to be a very effective treatment for the control and cure of cancer. But it’s a blunt tool and can cause many unpleasant side effects in patients. Now that we understand so much more about what makes cancer cells different from healthy cells, we should be able to find ways to use that knowledge to target treatments directly to tumours.”

Researchers at the new institute will also focus on finding ways to deliver radiation to tumours in more sophisticated and precise ways, in order to kill more cancer cells. And using new imaging techniques to precisely target radiotherapy to tumours they hope to find new ways to protect surrounding tissue, which would reduce side effects for patients.

Professor McKenna, says: “Our aim is be world-leaders in speeding the translation of research developments in this exciting field into benefits for patients, as well as providing education in the understanding of radiation research for all types of health care professionals.

“The new centre is designed to foster collaboration between scientists from quite distinct areas of expertise and I’m confident it will be the source of many groundbreaking discoveries.”

A review of radiobiology in relation to cancer treatment, carried out in 2002 by the National Cancer Research Institute, concluded that dwindling resources would be to the detriment of UK science, medicine and public health.

Born in Scotland, Professor McKenna has led an illustrious career in the USA for the past 30 years. For 16 years he has held the position of Henry K. Pancoast Professor of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania, where his main research interest was in making cells more sensitive to radiation by blocking mechanisms that control cell survival. His clinical interests are the treatment of lung cancer, soft tissue sarcomas, skin cancer, head and neck cancer, and melanomas.


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One in three people will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage during their lifetime and one in four people will die of the disease.

About 40 per cent of cancer patients receive radiotherapy and it remains one of the most successful ways of curing and controlling cancer.

*Patients are prescribed radiotherapy in numbers of Gray (Gy) units.

The Institute for Radiation Biology Research is an amalgamation of the Gray Cancer Institute, which will move from London, and the MRC Radiation and Genome Stability Unit, which will move from Harwell.

Cancer Research UK and MRC will together spend approximately £6 million per annum on research at the new Institute.

In conjunction with his new professorship, Professor McKenna will hold the positions of Honorary MRC Director of the Radiation and Genome Stability Unit, Harwell, and Honorary Director of the Gray Cancer Institute.

He is Past-President of the Radiation Research Society as well as a member of various national and international radiation and oncology societies.