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Victoria-based cancer treatment trial set to harness power of artificial intelligence

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Doctors in Victoria are trying to improve their results from a clinical trial that led to changes in the standard of care for men going through prostate cancer treatment by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence.

The follow-up research will form the second stage of a clinical trial from 2017 called ASSERT, which looked at making radiation treatment for men with prostate cancer more efficient and more convenient.

“We looked at a new technology called stereotactic radiotherapy," says BC Cancer-Victoria radiation oncologist Dr. Abe Alexander. "It uses some advanced technologies to focus the radiation more accurately and more precisely so we’re able to give the radiation in a smaller amount of doses, each of which is bigger."

The clinical trial from 2017 showed beneficial results where doctors could give patients five radiation treatments rather than 20 to 40.

“In fact, people who got the [stereotactic ablative radiotherapy] SABR treatment had at least as favourable side effects, perhaps in some ways better than the standard treatment,” says Alexander.

He adds that around the same time a separate clinical trial was done in the United Kingdom showing high levels of disease control as well. He says with the combined results, it helped lead to changes in standard of care.

SABR has been used in 400 to 500 patients in B.C. and the numbers continue to rise.

Now the Victoria-based team thinks there’s potential to get the radiation treatments down even lower from five to two sessions using artificial intelligence. Alexander says the AI can be used along with the work of highly trained specialists to make decisions faster.

“With this kind of trial, we’re hoping to minimize the number of visits which I think is critical in today’s environment where we have issues with wait lists and just ever increasing demands on our resources,” says Alexander. “If we can minimize the number of treatments for people and improve their side effects and quality of life, I think we can do a whole lot for the community – particularly for prostate cancer which is extremely common.”

A three-time cancer patient in Nanaimo, who is an advocate for raising awareness in young men about getting checked for prostate cancer, has recently learned about the return of the disease to his body.

While he doesn’t know his course of treatment yet, he says he hopes the clinical trial could be an option for him.

“I wouldn’t have to be away from Nanaimo for a significant amount of time,” says Don Helgeson. “This is where my support network is and you also have to factor in costs. It would have to be addressed if I went to another city for treatment.”

He says time isn’t on his side for the decision, so he plans to take whatever option his oncologist suggests.

The $500,000 trial is set to get underway later this year, relying largely on donor support through the BC Cancer Foundation.

“The cost savings for the system are enormous. The impact for patients and their families are enormous and if you’re able to make things more convenient for people then they’re able to access that treatment more easily,” says Alexander.

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