Gel could help prevent radiation burns

A novel silicone-based, film-forming gel dressing could be used to prevent skin burns, which are a side effect that affects head and neck cancer patients.

The study from the Queensland University of Technology, is the first of its kind to find an effective barrier against skin damage from radiation therapy in head and neck cancer.

The researchers were able to find an effective way to prevent and manage radiation dermatitis which causes dry and itchy skin in 85 per cent of cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy.

It could also prevent a wet, open wound, similar to burns, that requires dressing in up to 15 per cent of patients.

Topical ointments haven’t been successful in the past

Ray Chan, from QUT Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation who led the study, says many clinical studies had been conducted using topical ointments but none had proven successful in preventing, what can sometimes be serious, wounds requiring burns treatment in head and neck cancer patients.

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A patient with burns after 34 days of radiation therapy. Credit: QUT

“Many patients with head and neck cancer are offered ‘radical’ radiotherapy which is often daily for four to six weeks,” he says.

While radiotherapy has become more and more precise, the radiation goes through the skin ‘killing’ the skin cells and affecting the skin’s ability to rejuvenate itself, ultimately leading to radiation dermatitis, a red, itchy and often painful rash.”

Chan says the research team studied 197 patients with head and neck cancer undergoing curative radiotherapy, specifically external beam therapy through intensity-modulated radiation therapy and tomotherapy.

“The key to preventing radiation dermatitis is to keep the skin hydrated and provide a barrier to avoid further damages to the skin,” he says.

Silicone-based gel might be the answer

“Our study found that the silicone-based gel dressing provided an easily applied, invisible barrier to protect the skin by preventing transdermal water loss during radiotherapy.

“It keeps the skin well-hydrated and is a barrier against further friction or damage, prevents or minimises radiation dermatitis.”

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A patient after a full course of radiation therapy using the gel. Credit: QUT

“The beauty of using a gel is that it can be reapplied as needed before and after radiotherapy without the problem of a physical dressing falling off.”

Chan says the finding could potentially be applied to anyone undergoing radiotherapy.

“We studied patients with head and neck cancers because they are particularly prone to radiation dermatitis because the skin on the head and neck are in constant movement as the patient goes about their daily life and this meant many physical dressings simply fell off and were impossible to provide protection.”

“Also, the head and neck areas are often exposed to the sun that may worsen the burns.”

Some radiation centres already using the dressing. In those centres where the gel isn’t in use, patients are encouraged to request the dressing.

The study was published in the journal of Radiotherapy and Oncology.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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