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Opening up new front on the prostate cancer battlefield

By Lisa Smyth

Scientists are developing a revolutionary way to administer radiation to prostate cancer patients.

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy X-rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells in the surrounding area such as the bladder or rectum.

But the treatment can cause complications for patients, including difficulty passing urine.

Seven out of every 10 men may no longer be able to get an erection after external radiotherapy treatment for prostate cancer.

Researchers at the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) in Belfast — funded by Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health — are looking at ways of improving the process so that only the tumour, not surrounding cells, are targeted.

It is a unique approach, brought to the ECMC by Kevin Prise, Professor of Radiation Biology, and could lead to an advancement in the use of radiation in treating patients with prostate cancer.

“We collaborate with Dr Joe |O’Sullivan and our colleagues in the radiotherapy department,” said Professor Prise. “We are involved in an experimental lab-based programme looking at how to improve the delivery of radiation into prostate cells.”

Prof Prise said the research is at an early stage and scientists are trying to understand basic mechanisms which they hope will allow them to develop the technology.

He said: “We are looking at how radiation interacts with the tumours in order to improve its use. There are some very big changes

in how radiation is being delivered. Previously, it was shone on the tumour from one direction but now it is given in a much more complicated way from a series of directions to gradually build up dose and try to protect the normal cells. This is a fairly new approach in terms of trying to deliver clinical radiation. This is work we started almost two years ago when I came to Queen’s in 2007 and it relates to previous work I have done.

“It is a very, very precise way of targeting radiation. We can hit single cells with radiation. It is pretty excellent technology we have here that no other lab in the UK has. I brought that expertise from my previous lab. It really is groundbreaking stuff.”

Scientists are monitoring and analysing the results of studies to gain a better understanding of the disease.

“We are trying to improve the effectiveness of existing treatments and see how to optimise them and make them even better that they already are,” continued Prof Prise. “We want to maximise the effect that radiation has on the tumour and minimise the effects on surrounding structures.”

The cells used in the study have been developed from tumours removed from patients in the past — showing the benefits of clinical trials.

Prof Prise said this allows scientists to work in a more controlled way.

“Some of them are from patients a long time ago but essentially we can mimic in the lab what is going on in the body,” he explained.

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