Advanced form of radiotherapy to be made available on NHS
An advanced form of radiotherapy, called stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT), should be made available on the NHS to all suitable patients with cancer in England, according to new guidance (pdf).
SBRT is a precise form of radiotherapy that spares more healthy tissue than conventional radiotherapy and may help to improve survival.
Unlike standard radiotherapy, which uses one beam to deliver high doses of radiation, SBRT uses several beams which each deliver a very small amount of radiotherapy.
The beams can be aimed at the tumour from a number of different angles, thereby targeting the tumour very precisely while minimising the dose of radiation to surrounding healthy tissues.
SBRT also requires fewer treatments than standard radiotherapy.
The technique can be delivered using a standard linear accelerator, although new machines are now available that are specifically designed to administer SBRT.
New guidance on the therapy, published by the NHS National Cancer Action Team, recommends that all suitable cancer patients in England should have access to SBRT, in particular those with early lung cancer who are unable to have surgery, for whom evidence in support of the technique is strongest.
SBRT should be available at units where at least 25 patients per year will be treated with the technique, and which have the necessary quality assurance safeguards in place.
Patients with head and neck, liver and spinal tumours should only be given SBRT at specialised centres that treat large volumes of patients.
The guidance also emphasises the need for more clinical trials to determine the therapy's effectiveness for different types of cancer.
Peter Kirkbride, England's national clinical advisor for radiotherapy, revealed: "There is the potential for a large number of cancers currently being treated by long courses of external beam radiotherapy, which often cause significant side effects, to be treated and cured with shorter courses of more accurate radiotherapy with consequently fewer side effects.
"Excitingly there is also the potential for tumours which are currently not treatable by conventional methods to also benefit."
The guidance was welcomed by the National Radiotherapy Awareness Initiative - a group of organisations including Cancer Research UK and the Royal College of Radiologists.
Dr Jane Barrett, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, revealed that almost half of all patients whose cancer is cured receive radiotherapy.
She explained: "SBRT is particularly useful in some of the more difficult to treat cancers. We are pleased this cutting-edge form of radiotherapy will soon be available to all cancer patients who can benefit from it."
Hilary Tovey, Cancer Research UK's policy manager, said: "Radiotherapy is an important part of cancer treatment. We want the NHS to ensure that this treatment is available to all patients who might benefit. Guidance like this is an important step in the right direction.
"But we're also asking the government to take steps to ensure that radiotherapy gets the priority it deserves. This means making sure that the NHS has the right number of trained staff and specialised equipment to ensure that patients aren't missing out."
- National Radiotherapy Implementation Group Report: Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy - Guidelines for Commissioners, Providers and Clinicians in England (2011)