Radiation therapy was developed to damage and kill cancer cells. However, many healthy cells may also be damaged during a course of radiation treatments, even though doctors try to minimize this collateral damage. Most of the side effects of radiation treatments are the result of damage to healthy cells.
Radiation treatments tend to cause the most adverse side effects to cells that rapidly divide. These cells include skin cells, GI tract cells, blood cells in bone marrow, or cells lining the insides of the mouth. For this reason, there are some common side effects that most people experience when they receive radiation therapy.
Along with fatigue, side effects of radiation treatments include dry and itchy skin, changes in appetite, changes in taste and smell, weight loss, difficulty swallowing, nausea, and bone marrow suppression. Because of this list of side effects, having to undergo radiation therapy can trigger bouts of anxiety and depression in patients. Sleep quality can be affected, as can relationships with loved ones.
Here’s some good news on the radiation therapy front: French researchers think they have found a way to make radiation therapy less harmful to healthy cells. By reducing the number of healthy cells that get damaged when exposed to radiation, the severity and amount of side effects a patient experiences during radiation therapy could be significantly reduced.
The French research team calls the new and improved therapy “targeted radiation therapy.” The normal approach to radiotherapy is to damage cancer cells by using a wide energy range to irradiate all the tissues in an area of the body. However, the researchers have found a way to target a smaller area with radiation, reducing the harm to surrounding tissues and the total dose of radiation needed to damage cancer cells.
The researchers developed their new radiotherapy techniques by studying the effects of radiation at the atomic level. Using an X-ray type of radiation, the researchers found when atoms absorb X-ray radiation, some atoms emit electrons. These low energy electrons have one particularly useful ability when it comes to fighting cancer: they can break a double strand of DNA. Cancer cells (and healthy cells) are able to repair the damage caused to a single strand of DNA but can’t accomplish the same feat when a double strand of DNA is damaged. This could make it possible to target cancerous cells by triggering the release of low energy electrons with targeted, X-ray radiation. This targeted radiation is significantly more efficient than radiation treatments spread over a large energy range. The bottom line? The radiation dose someone needed to send cancer into remission should be considerably reduced.
The researchers are only at the beginning of perfecting their new X-ray therapy. They have to figure out a way to produce electrons that are toxic to the DNA of cancer cells.
This research may very well prove to be ground-breaking, improving the outlook for the millions of people who have to undergo radiation treatments.
Trinter, F., et al., “Resonant Auger decay driving intermolecular Coulombic decay in molecular dimers,” Nature. December 22, 2013.
“New Horizons in Radiotherapy?” ScienceDaily web site; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140113104745.htm, last accessed Jan. 15, 2014.