When Steve McCluskey was informed of his prostate cancer diagnosis last year, 40 sessions of radiation treatment seemed a daunting prospect for the self-employed insurance broker from Brightwaters, on top of his busy weekend travel schedule with his wife Tracey.
So when doctors at the Calvary Mater hospital offered him the chance to take part in a world first trial that would reduce that number of sessions to just five, he needed little convincing.
“I came in, saw the doctors in here and they said ‘Look, we’ve got this new trial, would you be interested?’”
“And I said ‘Absolutely. I think that’s a great idea,’” Mr McCluskey said.
Mr McCluskey is one of the first people in the world to be taking part in the SPARK clinical trial, which will use revolutionary technology pioneered in Australia known as Kilovoltage Intrafraction Monitoring.
It allows radiation therapists to access three dimensional images of the position of the cancer in real time and to redirect the radiation beam if the cancer moves by as little as a millimetre, meaning healthy tissue can be avoided and patients suffer fewer side effects.
Patients can now be treated if five half-hour sessions over two weeks as opposed to 40 fifteen minute sessions over eight weeks.
“It doesn’t interfere with your life,” Mr McCluskey said. “You can easily squeeze two days a week for a few weeks, rather than every day of the week for multiple weeks. I’m just way too busy, I can’t do that.”
Clinical Co-Chair of SPARK Associate Professor Jarad Martin said there were hopes if the trial was successful, the same technology could be used to improve accuracy and cut down radiation treatment times for other forms of cancer.
“So once we’ve got some runs on the board that the technology works and that it actually does what we hope it’s doing, it can be expanded in a whole bunch of different directions,” he said.
“So not just for more prostate cancer patients but also other tumours like lung tumours, that move a lot as people are breathing and tumours in other parts of the body, like in the pancreas and liver, which being relatively close to the lungs they can move a lot as well during treatment.”
Medical Physicist Professor Peter Greer said he was floored by the level of accuracy the technology provided.
“I think this is as accurate as it will get and as it needs to be. Sub-millimetre measurements of where the prostate is, in real time, is amazing.”
He said virtually every radiotherapy treatment machine in the world already had the hardware in place to accommodate the imaging software if there was a broader roll out.
48 patients across four hospitals in New South Wales will take part in the trial being coordinated by TROG Cancer Research. The trial is being co-funded by Cancer Australia and sponsored by the University of Sydney. The results are expected to be known by late 2017.
Senior radiation therapist Lee Wilton said shorter courses of treatment could deliver enormous efficiency benefits to overstretched hospitals.
“Now we’re looking at shortening treatment times, which as you can imagine would have massive savings to the health system, with getting patients through quicker, allowing more patients to be treated.”
But for Mr McCluskey, the focus is on finishing his treatment so he can get back on with his life.
“Outside there’s a whole heap of people with a lot of very complicated screens and machines they’re playing with.
“But as far as I’m concerned, it’s only a complicated x-ray. That’s what it’s like to me.”