imageEver since Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium in the early 1890s, physicians have been using it to try to cure disease. Placing radiation directly at the source of disease, a technique called brachytherapy or internal radiation, saw its crude beginning in those early experiments.

Despite brachytherapy’s long history, limited technology hampered the procedure’s usefulness for most of the last century. But brachytherapy is attracting renewed interest today. Rapid advancements in imaging in the past decade allow physicians to place the radiation more accurately, improving brachytherapy’s effectiveness and reducing side effects.

The technique was first established to treat cervical and other gynecological cancers, but brachytherapy is becoming more common in treating other cancers, such as soft-tissue sarcomas, head and neck cancers, lung cancer, breast cancer and, to great fanfare recently, prostate cancer. Cardiologists also are getting into the act, using brachytherapy to treat and prevent stent restenosis.

Although the majority of radiation oncologists have not yet learned to perform brachytherapy, the procedure is gaining wide acceptance and physicians say the trend will continue as brachytherapy’s effectiveness is born out.

Radiation therapy has long been standard-of-care in treating cancer patients. One common method, external beam radiation, passes through healthy tissue on its way through the body to the tumor. Brachytherapy, in contrast, delivers radiation by placing radioactive material directly at or within the source of disease. Physicians say that because the surrounding healthy tissue remains largely unaffected, the technique allows them to use higher doses of radiation at the tumor site, improving outcomes. Brachytherapy can be used alone or as a “boost” to external beam radiation.

For most cancers, brachytherapy involves temporarily implanting radioisotopes through catheters or wires using an afterloader device. The patient may receive several treatments for a few days or a week, depending on the cancer and treatment dose. A newer technique, used almost exclusively for prostate cancer, permanently places radioactive seeds at the tumor site using needles.

Please refer to the October 2001 issue for the complete story. For information on article reprints, contact Martin St. Denis