Improving the accuracy of cancer radiation treatment


Associate Professor Paul Keall
23 July 2010

About half of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy, but the therapy can be inaccurate.

Here, Associate Professor Paul Keall tells Carolyn Norrie how his 2010 NHMRC Australia Fellowship work will focus on trying to improve the accuracy by maximising the amount of radiation delivered to tumours while minimising the damage to surrounding tissue.

Associate Professor Keall also speaks of his hopes of repaying some of the mentoring he received during his early global career, by inspiring a new generation of scientists in Australia.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Our podcasts aim to keep you in touch with major health and medical research issues and the people who shape them.

Introduction: Hello my name is Carolyn Norrie. Today I’m talking to 2010 Australia Fellowship recipient, Associate Professor Paul Keall.

Interviewer: Paul, congratulations on winning your Australia Fellowship.

Assoc Prof Keall: Thank you.

Interviewer: Tell me a bit about the area of research that you work in.

Assoc Prof Keall: I am a medical physicist and I work predominantly in radiation oncology and using radiation to treat cancer. And as a bit of background, about half of cancer patients do have radio therapy, either as single mode of treatment or part of a multi-disciplinary treatment approach for their cancer. What I’ve been focused on and what I will be focused on through the Fellowship is trying to improve the accuracy [with] which we can image cancers and image patient tumors, particularly lung tumors because of the breathing-induced motion, and also improve methods to plan the radiation and deliver the radiation to these moving targets. And really trying to maximize the amount of radiation we can get to the tumor and minimize the amount of radiation damage that we’re doing to normal surrounding healthy tissues.

Interviewer: And you’re saying initially your study will be mainly related to treatment of cancer in the lungs. Will it have further applications?

Assoc Prof Keall: Yes and one of the reasons for lung cancer is it’s the greatest cancer killer – more people die of lung cancer than the next three highest cancers combined, so it is very much a national health problem. But a lot of the methods that we develop will be applicable to other tumors in the abdomen and thorax such as liver cancers, pancreatic cancers, and oesophageal cancers. We believe also more broadly applicable to head and neck, and prostate cancer as well.

Interviewer: Having a look at your resume it looks like you’ve had a very strong international career, obviously starting in New Zealand, but also now working in various parts of the US and now based at the very well known Stanford University.

Assoc Prof Keall: Yes I’ve been fortunate to have – and along the way you know I’ve been fortunate to, with the positions that I have been offered and also along with those positions I’ve had just wonderful scientific mentors as well that I’ve had along the way as well as collaborators. And so one of the things from the Fellowship that I hope to do is to also to continue to work with collaborators who are really essential in a multi-disciplinary team to really create the major change in projects which are broader than just one single area. And also on the mentorship side to really pay back some of the wonderful mentorship that I had by hoping to inspire and create a new generation of scientists in Australia, to work on medical-physics problems that can improve human health.

Interviewer: And the work you’re working on is obviously very, very close to clinical practice. Do you see the developments that you hope to put in place progressing and being translated to the clinical world quite quickly?

Assoc Prof Keall: Yes, quite quickly, I hope that … and some of the work that we have done previously has been translated to clinical practice, which is a very satisfying part of the area of medical research that I am involved with. Typically, translation to clinical practice takes much longer than one would hope for a number of reasons, but I do really see that some of the areas we’re working on will be used for patient treatment. I hope that’s something that will continue in the future because again it is incredibly satisfying to have a direct and measurable benefit on the treatment of patients.

Interviewer: And just a quick question, what led you to choose a career in medical research?

Assoc Prof Keall: Ah, good question. As an under-graduate I had, I guess, lofty ambitions about understanding the universe and the meaning of our existence, and so that’s why I chose physics and mathematics at university, and did not really know of the presence of sort of medical-physics research. And it wasn’t until, as an under-graduate, I was offered a summer scholarship that really exposed me to medical-physics. And from there you know the understanding that doing physics – what I really loved – could help improve human health was a very satisfying career choice.

Interviewer: Paul, thank you for speaking to us today and good luck with your work.

Assoc Prof Keall: Thank you very much.

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