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A new radiotherapy technique could revolutionise cancer treatment

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by Cancer Research UK | News

5 October 2009

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New radiotherapy technology can reduce the severe side effects of treating cancers of the head and neck according to latest trial results presented at the National Cancer Research Institute Conference today.

The phase III trial, funded by Cancer Research UK and run by The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden Hospital, found that patients given the new kind of radiotherapy were 50 per cent less likely to suffer from dry mouth – the main side effect of treatment.

Dry mouth is a lack of saliva caused by radiotherapy damage to the saliva glands, which are often close to the tumour. It can affect speaking, eating and oral health.

But the new technology – called Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (IMRT) – more accurately targets an effective dose of radiotherapy to the tumour, reducing damage to healthy organs, in this case the saliva glands.

The trial called PARSPORT involved 94 participants. Half were treated with traditional radiotherapy and the other half were treated with the new radiotherapy.

The researchers found that after 12 months, only 39 per cent of patients who had the new treatment suffered from dry mouth compared to 74 per cent who had the traditional treatment.

Dr Chris Nutting, chief investigator on the trial, and co-chair for phase III radiotherapy trials in NCRI said: “Our trial results are really exciting and mean that side effects from the treatment of cancers in the head and neck could be greatly reduced.

“Damage to the saliva glands can be really debilitating for patients and often the damage is permanent. This can mean patients are left without enough saliva for the rest of their lives which affects their speech and means they are more likely to have poor oral health.

“The findings strongly support a change in UK clinical practice. We would hope to see the new radiotherapy treatment used as standard treatment in hospitals very soon.”

David Jenkins, a journalist who is now 61, took part in the PARSPORT trial after a diagnosis of throat cancer. David says, “After I was diagnosed I was told that the radiotherapy treatment I needed would leave me with debilitating side effects. But I got lucky: I agreed to take part in the PARSPORT trial and was randomly chosen for the new treatment – to my great good fortune because I sailed through my treatment with virtually no side effects. I was able to eat and drink normally throughout treatment and ever since. My taste buds were unaffected and I have at no time suffered from a dry mouth. I feel so lucky to have been part of this trial. I really hope more people with this type of cancer can benefit in the future from this new way of giving radiotherapy.”

Kate Law, director of clinical trials at Cancer Research UK, said: “This key trial shows the huge potential that Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy has for the treatment of head and neck cancer. The new method of delivering radiotherapy is a real improvement as treatment can be tailored to the size and shape of tumours, so it’s more likely to be effective and less likely to damage surrounding tissues. This means it has the potential to help around one in five cancer patients.

“Cancer Research UK is funding a number of clinical trials which aim to perfect this treatment for many other cancers including prostate and lung.”

Dr Jane Cope, director of the NCRI, said: “NCRI has recently set up a new working group to develop an ambitious portfolio of practice-changing trials in radiotherapy, and to coordinate research in this area as well as its translation into practice. PARSPORT is an excellent example of the type of innovation we want to encourage.”

Read the abstract of the presentation here