Men with prostate cancer could be treated by high-power radiotherapy in just two and a half weeks – instead of the two months it takes at the moment.
The treatment would cut the number of sessions patients need to seven, one every other day, compared to the 39 needed at present, which must be attended on weekdays for almost two months.
Researchers say the technique, called ultrahypofractionated radiotherapy, will not only save time but will free up specialist equipment, thereby cutting waiting lists and saving the NHS money.
Professor Anders Widmark, a senior consultant and radiation specialist at Umea University in Sweden, said: ‘We already know that radiotherapy can destroy cancer cells in the prostate and that it has advantages over surgery and hormone therapy because it is less likely to cause impotence or incontinence.
‘However, radiotherapy requires expensive specialist equipment and patients can end up on a waiting list for treatment. Ultrahypofractionated radiotherapy offers a number of practical benefits to patients as well as time and cost-savings for hospitals, so we wanted to test if it is as safe and effective as standard radiotherapy.’
In a trial, 1,200 patients were treated at ten hospitals in Sweden and two in Denmark between July 2005 and November 2015.
All had been diagnosed with medium or high-risk cancer, with a high risk that the cancer could spread if it was not treated.
None had received treatment to block the male hormone testosterone, which can stimulate prostate tumours to grow.
Half the patients received standard radiotherapy of 39 treatments each at a normal radiation dose over eight weeks.
The other half received seven treatments of radiation at triple the standard dose.
Patients were then monitored for around five years to see whether their cancer returned, by checking levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA) and whether they suffered any side-effects.
They found 83.7 per cent of patients who were treated with the stronger doses showed no signs of their cancer returning, nearly identical to 83.8 per cent of patients using the standard treatments. Those on the higher doses suffered slightly worse side-effects at the end of treatment, but over the long term they were the same as those who had the standard treatment.
Professor Widmark told the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology in Barcelona that ultrahypofractionated radiotherapy was just as effective as the current treatment, adding: ‘Previous research has shown it’s possible to increase individual doses and give them over four to five weeks. Now we have shown we can condense the therapy further, raising the dose at each hospital visit so that the whole schedule lasts only two and half weeks.
‘This is the first large patient trial of this kind and it shows that ultrahypofractionated radiotherapy is just as effective as standard radiotherapy at stopping prostate cancer from returning.
‘Importantly, patients treated in this way do not suffer any more side-effects than those treated with conventional radiotherapy.’
It follows a similar trial on 1,800 patients by the Royal Marsden Hospital and the Institute of Cancer Research in London.
The Daily Mail is campaigning to improve prostate cancer treatment and diagnosis, which lag years behind other cancers. It is the most common cancer among men, affecting one in eight. With 47,200 cases a year and 11,800 deaths, it has overtaken breast cancer as the third most fatal cancer.
Dr Matthew Hobbs, of the charity Prostate Cancer UK, said: ‘The results look encouraging.’