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Twin radiation blasts could prolong lives of prostate cancer sufferers

Twin radiation blasts that curb prostate cancer could prolong thousands of lives

  • Treatment blasts prostate externally with radiation and internally with drugs
  • Trial led by Queen’s University Belfast has already been tested on 28 sufferers
  • It has paved the way for a larger trial of 1,500 men to be conducted next year
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The lives of thousands of men could be prolonged with a new treatment that uses radiotherapy to mount a ‘twin attack’ on prostate cancer.

It simultaneously blasts the prostate with radiation from outside the body while using ‘tumour-seeking’ radioactive drugs internally.

A trial led by Queen’s University Belfast has already been tested on 28 men with advanced prostate cancer. 

A trial led by Queen’s University Belfast has already been tested on 28 men with advanced prostate cancer

Early results show the approach is safe and in some cases has led to remarkable improvements, paving the way for a larger trial of 1,500 men next year.

Lead researcher Professor Joe O’Sullivan said: ‘This is the first trial of its kind anywhere in the world. 

‘It is hoped that combining the two forms of radiotherapy will be more effective than existing hormone treatment… and extend the life expectancy of men whose treatment options are otherwise limited.

‘It’s a radical approach to treating advanced prostate cancer. We get the cancer under control with hormone therapy and chemotherapy, then kick the tumour when it’s down.’

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Prostate cancer is the most common form of the disease in men. 

Some 47,000 are diagnosed with it in the UK each year and this year it became a bigger killer than breast cancer for the first time, with 11,800 men dying from it compared with 11,400 women dying from breast cancer.

The Daily Mail is campaigning to end needless prostate deaths through earlier diagnosis, better awareness and improved treatments. 

The new technique is aimed at attacking prostate cancer that has spread to the bones – about 10 per cent of all prostate cancer cases, affecting roughly 5,000 men a year.

In the past radiotherapy was usually used only for localised prostate cancer which is at an early stage and has not spread beyond the prostate.

But doctors are increasingly using the treatment for advanced cases, which seems to prolong survival. 

While it is not a cure, it can even eradicate some tumours. 

The new approach combines two existing forms of radiotherapy – volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT) to target prostate cancer cells in the pelvis, along with a type of internal radiotherapy drug called radium 223 that targets the disease in the bones.

VMAT is delivered externally with a machine called a linear accelerator, in daily hospital visits over two months.

Radium 223, also known as Xotigo, is a relatively new drug given intravenously in a course of six monthly injections.

Because both techniques are already used on the NHS, Professor O’Sullivan, clinical director of the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital, believes the new approach could be rapidly adopted if trials are successful.

‘There are 60 centres in the UK which are probably equipped to do this now,’ he said.

The results of the initial study will be published in February, but Professor O’Sullivan said they had so far been positive.

Owen Sharp, of the Movember Foundation, which helped fund the trial, said: ‘This is an exciting development.

‘For men with advanced disease, these types of programmes might enable them to live longer.’


How many people does it kill?

Prostate cancer became a bigger killer than breast cancer for the first time, official statistics revealed earlier this year. 

More than 11,800 men a year – or one every 45 minutes – are now killed by the disease in Britain, compared with about 11,400 women dying of breast cancer.

It means prostate cancer is behind only lung and bowel in terms of how many people it kills in Britain. In the US, the disease kills 26,000 each year.

Despite this, it receives less than half the research funding of breast cancer – while treatments for the disease are trailing at least a decade behind.

How quickly does it develop? 

Prostate cancer usually develops slowly, so there may be no signs someone has it for many years, according to the NHS. 

If the cancer is at an early stage and not causing symptoms, a policy of ‘watchful waiting’ or ‘active surveillance’ may be adopted. 

Some patients can be cured if the disease is treated in the early stages.

But if it diagnosed at a later stage, when it has spread, then it becomes terminal and treatment revolves around relieving symptoms.

Thousands of men are put off seeking a diagnosis because of the known side effects from treatment, including erectile dysfunction.

Tests and treatment

Tests for prostate cancer are haphazard, with accurate tools only just beginning to emerge. 

There is no national prostate screening programme as for years the tests have been too inaccurate.

Doctors struggle to distinguish between aggressive and less serious tumours, making it hard to decide on treatment.

Men over 50 are eligible for a ‘PSA’ blood test which gives doctors a rough idea of whether a patient is at risk.

But it is unreliable. Patients who get a positive result are usually given a biopsy which is also not foolproof. 

Scientists are unsure as to what causes prostate cancer, but age, obesity and a lack of exercise are known risks. 

Anyone with any concerns can speak to Prostate Cancer UK’s specialist nurses on 0800 074 8383 or visit

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