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8.15.2018

Sylvester Researcher Receives Grant to Study Long-Term Side Effects of Head and Neck Radiotherapy

Radiation therapy can be an effective treatment for people diagnosed with head and neck cancer. However, weeks, months or years after treatment, a debilitating side effect — fibrosis of the skin, subcutaneous tissue and muscles of the neck — often arises.

This excess production of fibrous connective tissue and scarring can significantly decrease patient quality of life and limit physical function. However, little evidence exists to help radiation oncologists predict, minimize or prevent this adverse outcome.

Spurred by a recent research seed grant from the Radiologic Society of North America (RSNA), Stuart E. Samuels, M.D., Ph.D., plans to change that.

Samuels, an assistant professor of clinical radiation oncology at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, will apply his recent RSNA award to launch a study to identify patients at higher risk for fibrosis.

“What led me to the current project was a patient of mine who came for a follow-up complaining of significant pain and immobility of her neck one year after radiotherapy,” Samuels said. “She clearly had significant radiation-induced neck fibrosis. I realized that I had no method of assessing her, nor did I have any idea what could possibly have been done to prevent this complication.”

Along with collaborators in the Department of Radiation Oncology and the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Samuels will create a new patient-reported outcomes survey. The goal is to gauge the importance of fibrosis on patients’ lives. The researchers plan to correlate the results with quantitative physical exam findings, the radiation dose and any prior treatment, and incorporate imaging and biomarkers as indicated.

Ultimately, their findings could lead to modified treatment plans for high-risk individuals, Samuels said. Incorporation of the new patient assessment tool into future clinical trials is a research goal.

“I was ecstatic,” Samuels said, when he received news of the NRSA grant. “For me, this is the beginning of what I see as a very important avenue for head and neck cancer treatment, and radiation oncology in general, that has never been investigated fully.” He added, “I feel like I’m on the ground floor of something that has potential for wider applications.”

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