According to a story from abc.net.au, a team of Australian scientists have developed a technique for delivering radiation therapy that could enhance both the potency and safety of treatment. This new tactic utilizes an unusual phenomenon associated with radiation called the “bystander effect.” It is projected that this delivery technique could enhance the effectiveness of radiation therapy by nearly 30 percent.
The Bystander Effect
The bystander effect was first discovered after the disastrous meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. After this event, millions of organisms were exposed to heavy amounts of radiation. In the nearby North Sea, for example, many fish that lived there received dosages of radiation. Radiation exposure can cause a distinct reaction to affected cells, and researchers found that cells that were exposed to radiation could trigger reactions in cells that were in close proximity to them, despite the fact these close proximity cells were never exposed to radiation directly. This is the bystander effect.
Using The Bystander Effect in Radiation Therapy
In the lab, physicists were able to use the bystander effect in the lab setting to successfully treat a variety of cancers, and are hoping that the method could be effective for treating mesothelioma, the type of cancer most frequently associated with asbestos exposure. In this experiment, the researchers were also able to keep nearby healthy cells mostly unaffected.
The process involves dividing the beam of radiation into smaller stripes. Cancer cells respond poorly to radiation and have a strong bystander effect because they release cytokines that spread radiation effects to neighboring cancer cells, triggering their deaths. Therefore, even though the radiation is divided and there are areas where the beam does not directly hit, the treatment is just as effective if not more so. Radiation affects the function of the circulatory system, but with this technique, this harmful effect is reduced and healthy tissue is more able to recover.
With this procedure, the scientists project that the treatment would be just as effective while exposing the patient to only half the dose of radiation. This means that it would theoretically be safe to give a stronger dose of radiation, since the side effects would be less harmful. This could be a major improvement for patients with cancer that has become treatment-resistant.