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Medical Moment: Personalized radiation treatment for cancer patients

Published: Jan. 12, 2022 at 8:06 PM EST
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More than half of all cancer patients are prescribed radiation therapy---treatment that is targeted to kill any cancer cells left behind after surgery.

Now, researchers are trying to identify ways to personalize radiation to improve quality of life.

For some patients, cancer surgery is followed by intensive radiation treatments designed to keep cancer cells from coming back. But…

“One of the problems with radiation is it has side effects,” says Heath Skinner, doctor at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “It has toxicities, and those toxicities last lifelong.”

Dr. Skinner and his colleagues are researching ways to improve a patient’s response to radiation and ultimately decrease exposure to radiation. For starters, they’ve identified two proteins in solid tumors called hat that might make cancer resistant to treatment. The researchers are also testing drugs that are currently in development to block those proteins.

“If you combine that with radiation in the mutated tumors, you have these dramatic responses, some of the best responses I’ve ever seen in animal models,” Skinner says.

The researchers have also examined the mutations and radiation resistance in human cells, bringing them one step closer to personalized radiation.

“If we can combine an agent, a targeted agent with radiation to make radiation work so much better on the cancer cells, maybe we can pull back the radiation dose, make it less toxic while still having really good effectiveness and making cancer go away and not come back,” Skinner says.

The researchers focused on head and neck tumors, but they say the approach could work with other solid tumors, like those in the lung.

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