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Wednesday, 18 October, 2000, 23:36 GMT 00:36 UK
Inoperable liver cancer treatment
The new technique targets radiation at the tumour
A treatment that offers hope to patients with inoperable liver cancer has been successfully used in the US.

The University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center in Baltimore is the first in the nation to successfully perform the new treatment known as TheraSphere.

The non-surgical outpatient therapy uses microscopic glass beads to deliver radiation directly to tumours.

Professor David Van Echo said: "We have a potentially safer and more effective treatment to offer patients with primary liver cancer.

We have a potentially safer and more effective treatment to offer patients with primary liver cancer

Professor David Van Echo, University of Maryland

"This is significant, given both the side effects and extended hospital stays required by chemotherapy."

Eight patients have undergone the procedure so far at the Greenebaum Cancer Center.

TheraSphere is administered through a catheter placed in the femoral artery in the upper thigh and threaded into the hepatic artery, a major blood vessel feeding the liver.

There, millions of microscopic glass beads embedded with the radioactive element yttrium-90 are released into the blood and are transported directly to the tumour.

TheraSphere treats the tumour with high doses of radiation over several days.

Unlike external beam radiation treatments, TheraSphere's targeting greatly reduces exposure of healthy tissues to delivered radiation. Patients can return home the same day.

Surgical removal of liver cancer offers the best chance for a cure.

Unfortunately, fewer than 15% of these patients are suitable surgical candidates, either because the cancer is too far advanced upon detection or because of other medical considerations.

Chemotherapy does not offer a significant survival rate.

Combined treatment

However, TheraSphere can be used in conjunction with chemotherapy, which may be more effective than either treatment alone.

It is far too early to say this technique has changed the way liver cancer is treated

Dr Kate Law, Cancer Research Campaign

TheraSphere may also be of value as a "bridging" treatment for liver cancer patients awaiting a donor organ for liver transplantation.

Dr John Toy, Medical Director at Imperial Cancer Research Fund, said: "This sounds like it could lead to improved treatment for liver cancer patients, particularly those for whom surgery is not an option.

"This is an intriguingly novel way of delivering radiation therapy locally to a liver tumour.

"It may allow delivery of an increased radiation dose without at the same time increasing toxicity to normal tissues.

"Further clinical research is needed to show whether better results actually can be obtained."

Dr Kate Law, head of clinical programmes for the Cancer Research Campaign, told BBC News Online: "At present, liver cancer is virtually untreatable, so anything that could potentially benefit patients without too much toxicity would be a good thing.

"However, only one centre in the world appears to be using this technique, and it is far too early to say this technique has changed the way liver cancer is treated."

Primary liver cancer - where the disease first develops in the organ - is particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where it affects up to 10% of the population.

The disease is much rarer in the West, where is it usually associated with the liver disease hepatitis.

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