Trial: non-invasive method of treating some small breast cancers

9th January 2014

“The results of this trial could lead to an entirely new and non-invasive way of treating small breast cancers.” - Professor Lindsay Turnbull

A ground-breaking approach to the treatment of some breast cancers is now being trialled at the UK's University of Hull’s Centre for Magnetic Resonance (MR) Investigation.

It is hoped that the new therapy, which uses a high intensity focussed ultrasound beam to target cancerous tissues, will eventually provide a non-invasive alternative to the surgical removal of some small tumours of the breast. The technology will also be trialled as an alternative to radiotherapy for relieving pain in patients who have tumours that have spread to their bones (metastases).

Only two other centres in the UK offer the therapy, which is called ‘Magnetic Resonance guided Focussed Ultrasound’ or MRgFUS. However, Hull is the only location in the country to use the technology for the treatment of conditions other than uterine fibroids.

Lindsay Turnbull, Scientific Director of the Centre for MR Investigations and Professor at Hull York Medical School and the University of Hull, said: “Only a small number of centres around the world are carrying out this treatment and although the initial results are very positive, further research is urgently required.

“The results of this trial could lead to an entirely new and non-invasive way of treating small breast cancers. It is fantastic that such a step forward in cancer therapy is happening here in Hull.”

The development is due in no small part to the Yorkshire Scan Appeal, chaired by Mrs Jean Van der Ende, which raised funds of £350,000 towards the purchase of the specialist equipment.

Each year around 50,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer. The vast majority of these are women, but approximately 400 men a year are also told they have the disease.

Mr Peter Kneeshaw, Lead Clinician for Breast Surgery said: “Breast screening is allowing us to detect cancers at an early stage, meaning they may be smaller and more easily treatable. MRgFUS may ultimately provide a way of treating some of these small breast cancers without the need for surgery and therefore avoiding a scar on the breast. It is still early days but the trials now running in Hull will allow us to validate the technology and, if successful, add a valuable technique to treat small breast cancers.”

Cancer cells that have spread to bone can cause significant pain and other serious complications, such as an increased risk of fractures and excessive pressure on nerves and the spinal cord. Radiotherapy can be used to alleviate such symptoms, however it is only successful in 50-60 per cent of patients for controlling pain over a prolonged period. As a result of this, patients are forced to take higher doses of strong pain killers which can lead to side-effects.

Dr Raj Roy, Consultant Clinical Oncologist, explained the benefits of MRgFUS for this group of patients: “MRgFUS is an exciting technique which could become an alternative to radiotherapy in patients with bone metastases. It also has the potential to help patients in need of better pain control who have already had radiotherapy but cannot have further radiation treatment without the risk of serious complications. We are extremely pleased as a group to be able to offer our patients such cutting-edge, safe and effective technology, in an NHS setting and within the context of a clinical trial.”

Professor Turnbull and her team are hoping to recruit 25 patients for each of the breast cancer and bone metastases trials, which are being run in conjunction with clinical staff at Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust. Individuals who would like to know more about the technology, or who think they might be eligible for the trial, are encouraged to speak to their specialists.

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