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Niagara Health cancer doctor’s research finds specialized radiation treatment poses few risks of side effects

Posted Nov 30th, 2022

The research we conduct at Niagara Health has a profound impact on the health and well-being of our patients and communities, and contributes to better understanding some of the most significant healthcare challenges of our time and have the potential to benefit patients in Niagara and across Canada.

A doctor in a white coat sits on the edge of his desk.

Dr. Eric Nguyen compiled the largest body of data yet to help radiation oncologists make more informed decisions about using stereotactic body radiation therapy to treat lung and bone cancers that have metastasized.

Research by Niagara Health’s Dr. Eric Nguyen has found that a form of radiation therapy can be used more aggressively to treat lung cancer than previously thought.

Dr. Nguyen, a radiation oncologist at the Walker Family Cancer Centre (WFCC), has compiled the largest body of data about undue side effects using stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) to treat both primary lung cancer and metastatic disease in the lungs and found that SBRT can be used with a low risk of toxicity or complications, even when treating multiple tumours at once.

He also further establishes SBRT as an effective option that can delay disease progression in metastatic cancer patients with multiple lung tumours, while confirming the therapy can be used more aggressively and be curative for primary lung cancer lesions.

Dr. Nguyen’s findings will help cancer doctors throughout the world make better informed decisions about their patients’ treatment plans, especially those with multiple tumours.

“We’re able to treat these patients with this targeted treatment and delay the need to go on chemotherapy or the next line of systemic treatments,” Dr. Nguyen says. “It just provides more options when treating this group of patients.”

SBRT uses precisely focused and intense radiation beams to treat tumours while minimizing damage to healthy tissue. Previously, cancer doctors may have been limited to using chemotherapy because of the lack of information about the side effects of using SBRT for multiple lung tumours, whether for primary cancer or metastatic disease, which has spread from elsewhere in the body, Dr. Nguyen explains.                                                                                   

He recently presented his findings at conferences in both the U.S. and Canada, including at the Canadian Association of Radiation Oncology (CARO) Annual Scientific Meeting. They will also be published in an upcoming edition of the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics.

He compiled the data using information from 190 patients during his year-long fellowship at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre last year. Dr. Nguyen, who also completed an elective residency at WFCC, returned to Niagara Health this year to establish dedicated spine and brain cancer treatment programs.

Until his arrival, patients with primary or metastatic spine and brain cancer would have to travel outside Niagara for treatment.

“Now that we’ve developed these programs, patients can get treatment right here,” Dr. Nguyen says.

At the CARO meeting, Dr. Nguyen also presented his research about using SBRT to treat non-spine bone cancer that has metastasized. Data on cancer of the spine that has spread is plentiful, he notes, but lacking for metastatic bone cancer elsewhere in the body.

Similar to his lung cancer treatment findings, Dr. Nguyen amassed the most data yet on treating bone metastases outside of the spine and determined radiation oncologists could use SBRT to control bone metastases with low risk of side effects, including fractures.

Having SBRT as a safe, effective option for treating bone cancer is significant because patients often experience pain and discomfort when the disease metastasizes. Using SBRT can improve their quality of life significantly, he says.

It can also stabilize or slow the cancer in an affected area of the body so a patient can continue with their current systemic treatment, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

In some cases, SBRT could be used to aggressively treat metastasized bone cancer without requiring additional systemic treatment.

“We are seeing a lot more patients living with metastatic cancer. It’s no longer a death sentence,” Dr. Nguyen says. “But a lot of times, they develop other symptoms that affect how they live. That has always been an interest of mine and why I did the research.”

Next on his research to-do list: studying the use of SBRT on other metastasized cancers and in palliative situations. Dr. Nguyen’s work will be centred here at Niagara Health while collaborating with researchers at other hospitals such as Sunnybrook, Juravinski Cancer Centre, and London Health Sciences Centre.

“It’s looking at different applications and putting together the data to support the use of SBRT in the treatment of metastatic cancer,” he says. “SBRT is a specialized technique I use in the care of my patients and I’ve always been interested in using it to help patients.”

Niagara Health System