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NCRI Cancer Conference highlight: Is the future looking brighter for radiotherapy?

by Julie Sharp | Analysis

24 November 2011

1 comment 1 comment

A patient receiving radiotherapy

Increasing access to radiotherapy could save lives

We’ve written before about 2011 being the Year of Radiotherapy and at the NCRI Cancer Conference earlier this month we had an update on progress from those involved in this important initiative, aimed at getting radiotherapy a greater share of the limelight.

We heard that progress is being made towards increasing patient access to the latest radiotherapy techniques, and that there has been a lot of publicity showing the benefits of this treatment in beating cancer. And in an era of personalised medicine, session chair Professor Tim Maughan described radiotherapy as the ultimate targeted treatment.

He announced how radiotherapy research in the UK has been given a boost through recent new funding from Cancer Research UK – building on the fact that four of our Centres already have a specific remit to focus on research into this treatment.

Here are some more highlights from the session.

Getting the services we deserve

Professor Sir Mike Richards, the government’s National Cancer Director, reflected on changes that are starting to be made toUK radiotherapy services, including increases to both the workforce and the number of machines available. These are steps in the right direction, although he admitted that the actual workload had risen and, despite an increase in machines, theUK is still underequipped compared to other European countries.

Professor Richards also discussed the challenges in making services more widely available – possibly by creating more satellite centres – and warned that the NHS must plan for a future where demand is expected to increase as we improve early diagnosis for cancer.

And it’s not just about rolling out standard treatment. We also need to make sure that newer and more precise techniques – such as intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), image guided radiotherapy (IGRT) and proton beam therapy  – are available to all who could benefit.  The government is currently considering two to three UK centres for proton beam therapy, because the NHS is paying for patients to be sent abroad at the moment, and Professor Richards seemed confident that this treatment would be more widely available in the UK in the future.

In his presentation Dr Michael Williams from the National Radiotherapy Implementation Group (NRIG) continued the theme of creating better services for radiotherapy across theUK. We know that the more precise technique of IMRT could benefit more patients than currently receive it, so radiotherapy centres across the UK are gradually being updated to enable them to offer this treatment.

The aim is that by 2012 we should be treating around 30 per cent of patients with IMRT, compared to previous levels of around five per cent. If we are to improve outcomes, Dr Williams stressed that patients need to have greater rights in terms of being told about their options, and choosing both their treatment and where they want to go to receive it.

Latest improvements

Professor Jeffrey Tobias, consultant and Professor of Cancer Medicine at University College Hospital London, described recent advances in radiotherapy techniques that are bringing greater precision while avoiding damage to surrounding healthy tissues. Techniques such as IMRT makes it easier to direct radiotherapy more precisely to the tumour, avoiding the harm that leads to unpleasant side effects, while IGRT helps to account for the body’s movements such as the effect of breathing on the lungs and chest.

Meanwhile, intraoperative radiotherapy allows the delivery of radiotherapy during surgery and has already been shown to be effective in stopping cancer returning in certain breast cancer patients. Another recent development has been the use of proton beam therapy, which is a more controlled way of delivering radiotherapy to a tumour while avoiding damage to healthy tissue.

In a complementary talk, Professor Gillies McKenna – director of the Cancer Research UK MRC Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology – described where radiotherapy research might take us. He envisions a future where improved imaging will help doctors understand more than just the location of the tumour but also what it is ‘up to’ in terms of its environment such as blood supply, oxygen consumption and whether it has spread (or is likely to).

Professor McKenna is also interested in using drugs to make tumours more sensitive to the effects of radiotherapy, including finding ways to help them respond to the treatment at lower doses. You can listen to Professor McKenna and Professor John Yarnold from The Institute of Cancer Research talking about the latest developments in radiotherapy in this short podcast from the NCRI Cancer Conference.

Communicating the benefits

Back in January we launched the year of radiotherapy with a survey showing that most people were unaware of the benefits of radiotherapy, the fact that it is a modern treatment that is constantly being improved and that it cures more people than cancer drugs.

Mr Stephen Hood, a lay member of NRIG, described how the way the media talks about radiotherapy is changing. In the past, the public profile of this treatment has tended to be low and focused on scare stories rather than the progress and promise it holds.   But there have been concerted efforts to publicise more stories relating to radiotherapy research and treatment, and to improve information resources for patients and doctors.

Throughout 2011 we have been running our ‘Voice for Radiotherapy’ campaign to raise awareness about this vital treatment and call on the Government to ensure that services are world class.

We were thrilled to have over 36,000 people sign the petition and to get people to spread the word about the value of radiotherapy through their friends and networks. The petition was handed in to Number 10 Downing Street earlier this month. You can find out more about the campaign and see pictures from the hand in on our Cancer Campaigns website.

While much still needs to be done, this session showed that there is growing momentum to improve radiotherapy, both in terms of research and delivery.   We want to make sure that cancer patients continue to benefit from these advances and improvements.

Julie Sharp, Senior Science Information Manager


  • SCM
    25 November 2011

    It’s great that more and more people start to appreciate the value of radiotherapy , congratulations on the amazing campaign!


  • SCM
    25 November 2011

    It’s great that more and more people start to appreciate the value of radiotherapy , congratulations on the amazing campaign!