Scientists at Cancer Research UK have discovered a way to “radically increase” the power of radiotherapy, thereby uncovering a novel approach for the treatment of cancer.

Researchers from the Cancer Research UK-MRC Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology & Biology at the University of Oxford found that increasing the stability of weak and twisted blood vessels typically found in cancers raised the quantity of oxygen getting to the tumour, making it more susceptible to radiotherapy.

The study tested four drugs currently on the market or in development for cancer, including AstraZeneca’s Iressa (gefitinib) and Roche’s Viracept (nelfinavir), which block a cell signalling pathway commonly activated in cancer cells. It was found that, while tumour growth itself was not affected, blood supply to the cancer substantially improved.

As well increasing tumours’ sensitivity to radiotherapy, increasing blood flow will also improve the delivery of chemotherapy drugs, which could increase their effectiveness, the researchers point out.

“It’s a counterintuitive technique because you might expect that by increasing an oxygen supply to tumour cells you would help them grow - but actually by oxygenating the cell with a better blood supply we enable radiotherapy and chemotherapy to do a better job of killing them,” explained the Institute’s director Professor Gillies McKenna.

According to Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK's director of cancer information, while more work needs to be done on the technique the findings represent a “very exciting development that hold real potential for use in patients”.