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Norfolk hospital pioneers new treatment for cancer patients

PUBLISHED: 12:30 17 September 2009 | UPDATED: 13:59 06 July 2010

Pieter Bothma with the hyperbaric chamber at the James Paget Hospital

Pieter Bothma with the hyperbaric chamber at the James Paget Hospital

A Norfolk hospital is to be one of the first in the country to offer on the NHS a pioneering treatment for cancer patients suffering unpleasant side-effects from radiotherapy.

A Norfolk hospital is to be one of the first in the country to offer on the NHS a pioneering treatment for cancer patients suffering unpleasant side-effects from radiotherapy.

The treatment at Gorleston's James Paget University Hospital (JPH) has involved doctors finding an exciting new use for a piece of equipment normally used to treat North Sea divers with the bends.

A study in the US has shown that cancer patients with a range of serious side-effects from radiotherapy can benefit from treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, which delivers pure oxygen to them under higher-than-normal air pressure.

The convincing results have convinced NHS funders to pay for the therapy - costing up to £6,000 per patient - and the JPH can offer it as the only hospital in the East of England to have a chamber.

Dr Pieter Bothma, the chamber's lead clinician, said: “The hospital was about to take part in a national trial of the treatment, but we decided to pull out after the results of the US study.

“A trial would have involved one group of our patients not receiving the treatment and we did not want that in light of its proven effectiveness.”

The therapy has proved effective in helping patients suffering side-effects from radiotherapy treatment for tumours in the abdomen and pelvic area, such as prostate cancer in men and cancer of the uterus and ovaries in women.

Dr Bothma said the side-effects were the result of radiation damaging normal cells as well as killing the cancer cells.

The symptoms, which often did not show up until some time after treatment had been completed, included pain, bleeding and frequent bowel movements. Patients could also pass blood and become anaemic.

In some cases, it prevented their gut taking up nutrients from food and led them to lose weight.

Dr Bothma said: “Radiotherapy treatment is improving all the time and it is only a small percentage of people who suffer side-effects, but we believe that we will be able to help about 10 patients a year.”

The JPH took delivery of its £260,000 chamber in December 2007 through a private/public partnership involving London Hyperbaric and Wound Healing Centres.

As well as helping bends victims, it is used to treat patients with conditions such as difficult-to-heal wounds and circulation problems resulting from diabetes.

Dr Bothma said the potential use of the chamber in helping cancer patients after radiation had been understood for a long time, but it was only the results of the US study that had led to the release of funding for NHS patients.

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