New precision cancer treatment is 'potential lifeline' for patients with deadly disease

  • Video report by ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke

David Hutson from Warrington hasn’t been the luckiest of late.

In the past two years the 60-year-old has had three separate cancer diagnoses.

He’s had treatment for the cancers in his skin and throat, but now treatment has started on his third, and most dangerous cancer, in his prostate, and his luck may have changed.

Mr Hutson is the first patient in the world to enter a global trial of a new cancer treatment machine - a Magnetic Resonance-guided linear accelerator, or MR-linac.

It combines the precision imaging power of an MRI scanner with a powerful cancer-killing radiation beam.

The new method is meant to focus radiation on the tumour more accurately.

Until now, treating cancer with a beam of radiation was a two-stage process.

Doctors would take an image of the tumour using x-rays, and the patient would then go into a separate machine where the radiation is aimed at the tumour based on where it was in the x-ray image.

But, because the tumour can move (and some tumours move more than others — think of the lungs, or tumours near the bladder which fills and empties) or doesn’t show up in the same detail in the x-ray image, targeting the radiation is not 100% accurate.

That means the beam has to be wider, to ensure all of the tumour gets a dose of cancer-killing radiation, but to limit the damage to healthy tissues the beam has to be weaker too.

A grateful Mr Hutson said: “I feel very lucky indeed that I'm having this treatment.

“I feel very confident in this technology and for my diagnosis it's going to help me defeat this third bout of cancer.”

By being able to point the beam directly at the tumour by imaging it in real time the team can give a more intense dose of radiation to the tumour, safe in the knowledge it’s not killing surrounding, healthy tissue.

If cancer’s in your sights, it is said to be the difference between using a shotgun, and a high-powered rifle.

Until now, treating cancer with a beam of radiation was a two-stage process. Credit: ITV News

The technology should allow certain cancers, like David’s prostate cancer, to be treated far more effectively than before.

Other tumours that move, such as cervical, lung and bowel cancer could be next.

But it could also allow powerful radiotherapy to be used in cancers where it was too dangerous to use before.

Pancreatic and liver cancers, for example, are surrounded by other vital organs, and for that reason, they are virtually untreatable with radiation.

Using MRLINAC to precisely target radiation could provide a completely new treatment option — a potential lifeline — to people with these very deadly cancers.