Radiotherapy is the ‘Cinderella’ of cancer treatments. Although it’s not suitable for all types of cancer, more than four out of ten patients in the UK receive radiotherapy at some point – whether for treatment or to relieve symptoms.
Yet while surgery, where suitable, is often the first-line treatment, and anti-cancer drugs grab the headlines, radiotherapy is an unsung hero of cancer care.
The PARSPORT Trial
Today at the NCRI Cancer Conference, Dr Chris Nutting presented early results from a Cancer Research UK-funded radiotherapy trial called PARSPORT, run by The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden Hospital. Here’s a short video about the research.
The trial was testing a new technique for giving radiotherapy to people with head and neck cancer called intensity modulated radiotherapy, or IMRT. Since it allows doctors to more accurately target a patient’s tumour, IMRT helps to avoid damage to the salivary glands – a common side effect of radiotherapy to the head, which can cause serious problems with speech and eating, as well as increasing the chance of mouth ulcers and infections.
The results of the trial are impressive. The researchers found that after 12 months, only 39 per cent of the 94 patients who had the new treatment suffered from dry mouth compared to 74 per cent who had the traditional treatment – a dramatic improvement in the quality of life for patients, compared to those receiving standard radiotherapy.
Trials of IMRT for treating various other cancers are currently under way, including a number funded by Cancer Research UK (such as COSTAR). The technique is being adopted by an increasing number of radiotherapy centres around the UK, as new equipment becomes available, so more and more patients should be able to benefit from it.
Giving radiotherapy a boost
Until a few years ago, little research was done in radiotherapy since, unlike drug trials (often bankrolled by pharmaceutical companies) there was little financial incentive. But alongside technical advances, the UK cancer community recognised the importance of researching radiotherapy – and the need to do even more.
As part of our five-year strategy, we will be putting more research investment into radiotherapy. We already fund plenty of research at the Cancer Research UK/MRC Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology in Oxford – the largest radiotherapy research facility in Europe – as well as the work of scientists and doctors across the UK. Together they are working to improve the effectiveness and accuracy of the treatment.
Radiotherapy has already made a big impact on cancer survival in the UK – thanks in part to work we’re supporting. And in the future, we hope our investment will lead to more lives saved, with fewer side effects.