Reducing the side effects of Radiation therapy on the skin

Even small Cancer Research Trust NZ grants can lead to important advances in the fight against cancer. For example, the $2,450 Professional Development Award granted to Dr Patries Herst has led to the pilot study of a skin dressing which appears to reduce radiation-induced skin reactions.

These skin reactions occur in 80-90% of women undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer – and can vary from a reddening of the skin, to itching, cracking, blistering, peeling, and ulceration. As yet, there is no standard treatment for reducing these side effects.

Dr Herst, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Radiation Therapy at the University of Otago in Wellington, developed an interest in the prevention and management of the side effects of radiation therapy and wanted to set up a clinical trial using special dressings designed for burns. However, she lacked the clinical background in radiation oncology. So to help gain support from clinicians in the field, she used the Cancer Research Trust award to attend the Trans Tasman Radiation Oncology Group meeting in Alice Springs in May 2008.

“This meeting provided me with a unique opportunity to network with the top clinical researchers in radiation oncology in Australia and New Zealand,” says Dr Herst. “Even though I was the only person who had not worked directly in the field of radiation therapy I was made to feel very welcome and I was able to discuss in fine detail the protocol of the trial I wanted to set up. The mentoring I received gave me the know-how to carry out a pilot study which has now been completed with very encouraging results.”

The dressing trialled was Mepilex Lite, a Swedish silicon-foam skin dressing currently used for the treatment of burns and poorly healing open wounds. Dr Herst found that these dressings reduced the extent of radiation-induced skin reactions by 30% compared with treatment using standard cream in 24 breast cancer patients. She believes that the dressings work by protecting the radiation-damaged skin from further damage caused by friction of clothes, other parts of the body, and perspiration.

“This promising treatment has the potential to greatly reduce the side effects of radiation therapy on the skin. And the really good news is that the Trans Tasman Radiation Oncology Group has agreed to help develop a full scale multi-centre Australasian trial of Mepilex Lite in 300 women being treated for breast cancer. None of this would have happened without the $2,450 grant from the Cancer Research Trust. Every dollar the Cancer Research Trust donors give really counts and I would like to thank them personally for their support of my work.”

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