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Boosting Capacity in Cancer Care: IAEA Panel Discussion Marks World Cancer Day

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Experts discussed how to get cancer treatment to patients worldwide at the IAEA World Cancer Day event. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

Infrastructure development and training for doctors and other medical staff are key to better treatment, diagnosis and management of cancer in the developing world, experts emphasized at a panel discussion titled Boosting Capacity for Cancer Care, organized by the IAEA to mark this year’s World Cancer Day. An integrated approach including the various aspects and modalities of cancer care is required, experts said – and the IAEA can help countries in achieving it.

“The challenge is daunting: in 59 countries, less than a quarter of patients have access to radiotherapy. That means that huge numbers of people die of conditions that would often be treatable if their countries had the necessary equipment and facilities, and enough well-trained doctors and technical professionals,” said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, opening the event.

Panellists discussed the impact of specific programmes and projects, as well as how the IAEA can facilitate the transfer of knowledge and expertise. They also discussed some of the latest technological advances in radiation medicine.

“Medicine is an ever-evolving field, with technological advances and changing disease patterns, so it is important to provide countries with opportunities to keep abreast of latest developments,” said Najat Mokhtar, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, who moderated the panel discussion.

Mack Roach III, Professor of Radiation Oncology and Urology and Director of the Particle Therapy Research Program and Outreach at the University of California San Francisco, described some of the recent advances in nuclear and radiation medicine.

“One type of new knowledge we have about radiation therapy is what we call ‘flash radiation’, which is 600 times faster than conventional radiation,” he said. “It appears that if you deliver radiation fast enough, you don’t have to worry about the motion of the patient, for example when they breathe. Faster treatment times also mean you can get to more patients per day.”

Kennedy Lishimpi, Director and National Coordinator Cancer Control Services at the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Zambia, spoke about the country’s establishment, with support from the IAEA, of its first cancer treatment centre over ten years ago.

“The hospital has become a comprehensive centre for the delivery of radiation medicine,” he said. “A strong human resource development programme is essential to ensuring progress, so we established local trainings in order to sustain these services.” With more staff available, the number of patients treated has also increased, he said.

Impact of nuclear medicine education

Maria Cecilia Atencio Rosselot, radiologist at the Nuclear Medicine School Foundation in Argentina and graduate of the first IAEA-supported master’s degree in advanced radiotherapy, spoke about the impact of the master’s programme. 

“I learned about new tools for therapeutic decisions when facing patients, including on the diagnosis and adequate follow-up of toxicity and results,” she said. “Six months after my return I already started the transmission of what I learned to my colleagues, not only in my institution but also within the national network of radiotherapy institutions.”

Ian Donald McLean, Principal Medical Physicist at the Canberra Hospital in Australia, highlighted the effectiveness of IAEA-supported medical physics education and training in Asia and the Pacific, noting the important, yet often overlooked, role of medical physicists in cancer treatment and the challenges in ensuring adequate training.

“Radiation medicine is expanding faster than medical physicist training,” he said. “We recognized that physicists outside of metropolitan centres and in developing countries were not being included in clinical training programmes, so we established the Advanced Medical Physics Learning Environment e-learning platform to be able to reach them.”

Affordability of treatment

Sergei Nazarenko, Professor at Tallinn University of Technology and Head of the Department of Nuclear Medicine and PET at the North Estonia Medical Centre, spoke of how personalized medicine and quality management are necessary to alleviate the cancer burden, particularly in terms of ensuring its affordability.

“In personalized medicine we try to identify the specificity of the person, in order to use advanced and expensive treatment only in cases where we really think it would help, as this is extremely important for the affordability of treatment,” he said, adding that using the most advanced methods in large groups is not sustainable.

In her concluding remarks, May Abdel-Wahab, Director of the IAEA’s Division of Human Health, spoke of ways to ensure the success of capacity building activities.

“It’s very hard to keep abreast of all the advances in technology, on top the changing patterns of cancer, so the IAEA approach has to be flexible, and it is,” she said, adding that the common features of successful projects and collaborations are ownership and commitment by the relevant individuals in each country.

In closing, Luis Longoria, Acting Director of the Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy and Director of the IAEA’s Division for Latin America and the Caribbean, highlighted the importance of partnerships in addressing the worldwide burden of cancer.

“The fight against cancer is a tremendous challenge and no single organization has all the capabilities to fight this disease, so we have to build bridges in all the different areas, including with governments, donors, non-governmental organizations and the private sector,” he said, adding that this year’s Scientific Forum, to be held on 17-18 September in Vienna, will take stock of the IAEA’s contribution to cancer control over the last decade. 

The panel discussion was livestreamed on the IAEA Facebook page. The recording is available here.

The IAEA supports countries through the transfer of knowledge and expertise to improve access to nuclear medicine. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

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