A study published in today's New England Journal of Medicine offers encouraging news about a novel way to fight cancer. It finds that injecting a type of liquid radiation, called Bexxar, into patients with lymphoma -- a cancer of the immune system -- can fight the disease more quickly and with fewer side effects that existing treatments. The approach might eventually be used on a variety of cancers.
"This is the first time we're using injectable radiation to treat cancer," said Dr. Andrew Zelenetz, a hematologic oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
The radioactive drug is delivered intravenously and works like a guided missile. It travels throughout the body, homing in on a specific protein found on the cancer cells.
"And when it latches on to it, it now has radiation attached to it and the radiation is essentially there at the site where you want it, radiating the tumor and not radiating other tissues," said Dr. Mark Kaminski, director of the Multidisciplinary Lymphoma Clinic at the University of Michigan Cancer Center.
When Bexxar was used to combat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, 59 percent of patients remained cancer-free during the five years of study.
"These results are very similar to the results we're getting with state-of-the-art chemotherapy," said Zelenetz. "However, the distinct advantage here is that it is much more user-friendly for the patient."
The liquid radiation treatment is completed in just one week, compared to the 4½ months often required for chemotherapy. There are remarkably few side effects -- no hair loss, less nausea and a lower risk of infection. Fatigue is the most common side effect.
Theresa Singh, a 46-year-old mother, had tumors bulging from her abdomen when she got the experimental therapy.
"It was so quick and easy," she said. "The day after I took the therapeutic dose, I noticed the tumors had shrunk. It was that quick after the treatment."
It can be effective in patients who have failed all other forms of treatment.
Early results are so promising that researchers are now testing this approach on a variety of cancers -- including ovarian, prostate and breast cancers.
The researchers predict they will know within three to four years how many more cancer patients might benefit from liquid radiation.