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Our impact on radiotherapy

Radiotherapy may not be at top of the list when you think about cancer treatment. Chemotherapy and surgery are more well-known, and many people view radiotherapy as an ‘old-fashioned’ treatment that isn’t used much today.

In fact, many thousands of cancer patients in the UK - and millions worldwide - benefit from radiotherapy every year, and it helps cure more people than cancer drugs.1   Over the years, our work has played a major part in helping to transform radiotherapy into a life-saving cancer treatment.

Watch the video to find out more about radiotherapy and our research, or read the transcript.

Our pioneering research laid the foundations of modern radiotherapy, and we continue to work on ways to improve the treatment for today’s cancer patients, helping to make it kinder with fewer side effects. Here are just a few examples of the impact our research has made over the years.

You can find out more about radiotherapy in general on our patient information site, CancerHelp UK, or download our radiotherapy briefsheet (pdf).

Establishing radiotherapy in the UK

Our association with radiotherapy began in earnest in the 1920s and 30s, not long after Marie Curie first discovered the radioactive elements radium and polonium and coined the phrase ‘radioactivity’.

During this time, when the field was still in its infancy, we supported some of the earliest research into the treatment of cancer with radiotherapy. Specifically, we helped to coordinate and monitor the use of radium across the UK to treat people with cancer in hospitals such as the Westminster, the Middlesex and the Royal Marsden (then known simply as the Cancer Hospital).

This work was crucial to radiotherapy becoming a mainstream treatment for cancer. And it was the catalyst for early progress in improving survival in certain cancers, particularly cervical cancer.

We’ve moved on leaps and bounds from these early days of research, but these principles still guide how we treat people with cancer today.

Supporting the pioneers

Thanks to support from the public stretching back over many decades, we’ve funded many pioneers of radiotherapy, who have shaped how people are treated today.

For example, we supported much of the work of Valentine Mayneord in the 1920s to 40s – a ‘medical physicist’ who helped establish some of the guiding principles of how to measure the dose of radiotherapy and protect healthy tissues from its affects.

If you or someone you know has received radiotherapy then maybe you’ve heard doctors use the word ‘Gray’, named after Louis Harold Gray – known as Hal to his friends and colleagues. The Gray is a measure of how much radiation your body absorbs, and is used by doctors worldwide when giving radiotherapy.

Hal Gray was one of the earliest experts in radiotherapy, and is often described as the ‘father of radiobiology’ – the science of understanding how radiation affects the body. We supported much of his groundbreaking work during the 1930s to 60s. He founded the world-renowned and hugely influential Gray Laboratory at Mount Vernon Hospital in the mid-1950s, which we funded and ran for many decades.

Hal Gray’s name lives on through one of our flagship institutes - the Cancer Research UK-MRC Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology in Oxford, opened in 2008. Here almost 200 scientists from all over the world have joined forces to push the boundaries of radiotherapy research.

The city of Manchester has a long and internationally renowned association with radiotherapy research, starting in the early years of the 20th century with the work of The Christie and Holt Radium Institute. 

Our Paterson Institute for Cancer Research is named after Ralston Paterson, who was a worldwide leader in the use of radiotherapy to treat cancer in the 1930s and 40s. In particular, he led one of most important British contributions to this field – a system for establishing and delivering the most effective dose of radiation to tumours.

The Paterson Institute continues to distinguish Manchester as a world-class hub for cancer research, including work in radiotherapy, and is now an integral part of The Christie.

Radiotherapy for breast cancer

We’ve funded important studies showing how radiotherapy can be used to help treat breast cancer. In the 1970s we showed that radiotherapy can prevent tumours re-growing in some women who have had surgery for early breast cancer2.

And in 2008 we showed that women with early breast cancer can benefit from fewer but larger doses of radiotherapy3. Thanks to our work, many women can benefit from shorter treatment schedules and fewer hospital visits.

Developing targeted radiotherapy

Since the 1980s, we’ve been at the forefront of international efforts to develop radiotherapy that can be accurately targeted to fit the shape of a tumour. Called IMRT, this type of radiotherapy allows doctors to boost the amount of radiation to the tumour, whilst limiting damage to surrounding healthy tissues. This helps to reduce side effects.

We lead the world in running trials to determine who will benefit most from IMRT. We carried out some of the first trials of IMRT, including treating the first prostate cancer patients in the UK4.

We’ve shown that IMRT can reduce side effects for patients with head and neck cancer – a disease that affects half a million people worldwide. This work will change how these patients are treated in the UK.

And our clinical trials of IMRT in breast cancer could change current practice and place the UK at the cutting edge of international research in the field.
Thanks to such work, this type of radiotherapy is expected to become a mainstream treatment in the UK for certain cancers in the future.

Improving survival in lung cancer

We are pioneering different ways to give radiotherapy to people with cancer, to make sure they get maximum benefit from their treatment. In the 1990s we helped develop a new type of radiotherapy known as continuous hyperfractionated accelerated radiotherapy (CHART). This is delivered in lots of small doses over a much shorter period of time than conventional treatment.

Our doctors have used CHART to extend the lives of people with the most common type of lung cancer5, although research is ongoing and this treatment is not yet widely available.

The future of radiotherapy

Our heritage in radiotherapy stretches back almost a century, from the early days of research to our role in developing today’s cutting-edge treatments. 

Now – as part of our 5-year research strategy – we’re reinvigorating research into radiotherapy in the UK and investing in the next generation of experts. We want to make the treatment more precise and effective, to save more lives and reduce side effects.

Through our Voice for Radiotherapy Campaign, 36,000 of our supporters asked the Government to make sure that the best radiotherapy treatments are available to every patient that needs them. In 2012, David Cameron announced a £15 million Radiotherapy Innovation Fund to help improve radiotherapy services and ensure that everyone gets access to the latest treatments – a great success for our campaign.

With the help of our supporters, we’ll continue to work hard to ensure that progress in radiotherapy benefits patients, and that the UK remains a world leader in this field.

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  1. Einhorn J et al. (1996) Radiotherapy for Cancer, vol 1. Acta Oncologica 35 (suppl. 6):1–100 and (supp. 7): 1–152 (referenced by the Board of the Faculty of Clinical Oncology. The Royal College of Radiologists (2003). Equipment, Workload and Staffing for Radiotherapy in the UK 1997–2002)
  2. Cancer Research Campaign Working Party (1980) Cancer Research Campaign (King's/Cambridge) trial for early breast cancer: A detailed update at the tenth year. Lancet 2; 55-60
  3. START Trialists Group (2008) The UK Standardisation of Breast Radiotherapy (START) Trial A of radiotherapy hypofractionation for treatment of early breast cancer: a randomised trial. Lancet Oncol 9: 331-41
  4. Webb S, Cosgrove V, Evans PM. Royal Marsden Hospital in Phase I IMRT clinical trial for prostate cancer. Wavelength 2001; 5: 1-5.
  5. Saunders, M. et al. (1999) Continuous, hyperfractionated, accelerated radiotherapy (CHART) versus conventional radiotherapy in non-small cell lung cancer: mature data from the randomised multicentre trial. Radiother. Oncol. 52: 137-48
Updated: 2 September 2010