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Experimental ‘pulse radiotherapy’ kills cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue

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by In collaboration with PA Media Group | News

17 July 2014

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​French researchers have developed a new radiation technique that appears to target tumour cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed, according to a new study in mice. 

The technique, known as ‘FLASH’, was developed by researchers at the Institut Curie in Paris and delivers short pulses of intense radiation to tumour cells.
“It’s still at the very first stages of development and needs testing in other tissues to understand the processes involved, and the most effective way to deliver these pulses” – Professor Gillies McKenna, Cancer Research UK

Radiotherapy uses high-energy radiation to permanently damage the DNA of cancer cells, causing them to die by committing suicide.
Standard radiotherapy treatment delivers a continuous beam of radiation to targeted areas. But this can also damage normal tissue surrounding tumours.
The latest study in mice, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, found that rapid pulses of high-dose radiation affected implanted lung cancer cells differently to healthy cells, killing off the tumour cells while leaving the surrounding healthy tissue intact.
When analysed in the lab, the researchers found that the cancer cells given radiotherapy pulses were dying via a completely different molecular ‘suicide’ pathway to those given continuous treatment.
The sub-millisecond bursts of radiation were delivered using an experimental radiotherapy machine. And the next phase of the research will look into whether the approach can be replicated in other tissues.
Professor Gillies McKenna, director of the Cancer Research UK and Medical Research Council Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, said the findings could be “game-changing”, but emphasised that the research is still at an early stage.
“Although this research was done in mice, it’s an impressive study and if it holds true in other tissues this could become a game-changing piece of research. It suggests that cancer cells die after rapid pulses of very high dose radiation exposure in an entirely different way to healthy cells, and – if confirmed – this could lead to a radically different way of giving radiotherapy to patients,” he said.
One of the constraints of the FLASH treatment is that it relies on technology currently not found in radiotherapy facilities. And if it were to be developed further, a completely new generation of radiotherapy machinery will be required, Professor McKenna added.
Emlyn Samuel, policy manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “Research doesn’t stop, and this study is a great example of how developing new technology and lab research could combine to improve radiotherapy treatment for people with cancer. But it’s vital that the NHS is in a position to adopt any new, exciting technologies that are proven effective so that patients can benefit in the future.
“Planning for future innovations is why we jointly produced the 10-year Vision for Radiotherapy with NHS England. We now need to ensure that the Government sets out a clear plan to adopt this vision, and realise the benefits of research to give patients access to the best, evidence-based treatments.”

  • Favaudon V, et al. (2014). Ultrahigh dose-rate FLASH irradiation increases the differential response between normal and tumor tissue in mice, Science Translational Medicine, 6 (245) 245ra93. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3008973