Miriam Walter saw the tumor in her pancreas shrank 73 percent thanks to new technology. Photo / Provided
Miriam Walter was told she would not last to see this Christmas when she was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer a year ago.
But thanks to the radical new treatment, which is benefiting the country for the first time, the 72-year-old feels “just fine” and wants to celebrate the summer with his family.
The OncoSil device, developed by an Australian medical technology company, extends and even saves patient lives and has been successfully used at Waikato Hospital three times this year to treat people with inoperable, advanced stage pancreatic cancer.
Only 8 percent of pancreatic cancer patients in New Zealand survive longer than five years and only 10 percent are diagnosed early enough for surgery – the only curative treatment.
The disease kills more than 500 Kiwis a year and is projected to become the fourth largest killer in the country by 2025.
The device, recently received regulatory approval in New Zealand, allows radiation-containing micro-particles to be injected directly into tumors via ultrasound-guided endoscopy – a form of brachytherapy.
The full dose of radiation is released from the particles over 80 days and causes far less damage to surrounding organs than standard radiation therapy in which a beam of radiation is directed at the cancer from outside the body.
Walter said he went to the doctor when the whites of his eyes turned yellow and was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in early November.
“I was told, without any treatment, I might have about three months to live,” he said.
Walter immediately started chemotherapy and was on vacation with his family when the clinical director of gastroenterology at Waikato Hospital, Dr Frank Weilert called to tell him about OncoSil in January. At the end of that month he began receiving treatment.
“It’s just a better choice. That or do nothing and see what chemo does,” he said.
“I’m quite proud of the fact that I took the courage to be number one so that others can benefit from it.”
Walter said he had no side effects and scans showed the tumor had shrunk by 73 percent.
Since then, her tumor has remained stable as she continues chemotherapy treatment.
“Chemotherapy is what keeps me like this. I’m fine. I drive, go to the shop, go to the beach, socialize with my friends,” he said.
“It’s not all doom and gloom. Life goes on and that’s how it is.”
Weilert said that, despite its success, surgery might not have been an option for Walter because of his age and other health problems.
But two to three months after having performed the procedure on the other two patients, at least one is being considered for surgery although it is too early to make a decision, he said.
“It’s obviously very exciting to do something new. It’s more exciting because we’ve seen great results,” Weilert said.
The history of pancreatic cancer is so “dire” that patients usually present with advanced disease and few are offered surgery.
“For pancreatic cancer, this is a very promising technology that will give hope to patients who have little hope when you get this diagnosis. You get this diagnosis and you often plan your last Christmas. It’s very, very devastating.”
Trials have shown the treatment reduces tumors to an operable size in a quarter of patients and 20 percent of patients receive surgery to completely remove the tumor, he said.
Weilert, the only doctor in New Zealand to use the device, said the new treatment offered a possible cure or at least an extension of life for patients who were, on average, given six months to live after diagnosis.
“This gives our patients more hope than we have recently had with such devastating cancer,” he said.
“The interesting thing about OncoSil is the beta radiation so it doesn’t emit too far from where the device is being sent, preventing additional damage.”
He said patients treated so far in New Zealand, including Walter, have shown few side effects and they are consistent with the chemotherapy they have received.
Weilert said the device also has the potential to change the current standard of treatment by being given earlier in the treatment process because there is evidence to suggest that it increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
Gut Cancer Foundation chief executive Liam Willis said while OncoSil sounds like an interesting concept and appears to be a new approach to the delivery of radiation therapy, it is still an experimental idea that has not been fully reported.
He said it appeared safe and promising enough to take him to a phase three clinical trial that would determine if it was any better than current chemotherapy treatment and external beam radiotherapy in those with locally advanced pancreatic cancer.
“The Gut Cancer Foundation does not consider this approach a new standard of care until such studies are conducted and the risks and benefits are better understood.”
Patients treated so far have received funds from the company for compassionate reasons but from now on patients will have to pay about $ 30,000 for treatment until the company can obtain it.