Leeds hospitals leads way with treatment using fire and ice to kill cancers

Dr Wah and her team
Dr Wah and her team
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It sounds like something from a film – a cancer treatment which uses balls of fire to frazzle tumours.

Or, tumour ablation can utilise freezing cold to create ice balls which have the same effect.

John Brett

John Brett

Either way, the benefits to patients of these revolutionary methods are huge – fewer risks, shorter recovery times and the ability to repeat the treatment if needed.

Dr Tze Wah, consultant radiologist at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, is an expert in Interventional Oncology (IO), the diagnosis and treatment of cancer using these minimally invasive procedures, performed using imaging technology.

The treatment uses energy from microwaves to create heat which kills the tumour, or cold – cryoablation – energy which has the same effect, with the fire or ice “balls” destroying the tumour.

It can be used for liver, kidney and some lung cancer tumours, but kidney cancer is the area in which Leeds is most well-known.

Traditional treatment involves non-keyhole surgery.

However removal of any part of the organ can affect its function, leaving kidney cancer patients potentially needing gruelling dialysis treatment.

Heat treatment is usually used in liver or lung cancer, but in kidney cancer, ice balls are used because of the need to save kidney function.

“With the ice ball, we can see the ice,” Dr Wah explained.

“That’s the preferred energy. With the ice we know that we’re not damaging other things.

“There’s nothing to say one type of energy is better than the other, but being able to see how much you can treat of the kidney is an advantage.

“For people with a single kidney, we’d definitely use the ice ball treatment.”

These patients can not only preserve their remaining kidney, but the whole treatment is less invasive and therefore easier to recover from.

“The recovery period is minimal. That makes a massive difference,” Dr Wah added.

“If you have surgery for renal cancer, your GP will sign you off for three months. Some of our patients can go back to work after 10 days.”

Not only that, but the cost is smaller – in human and monetary terms.

Dr Wah said the cost of dialysis was about £25,000 annually, while more importantly, patients aged over 60 only survived around five years on average.

By contrast the cost of tumour ablation is about £5,000 to £8,000 – and it doesn’t have the same impact on survival.

“It’s a cost-effective treatment, but not only that, it’s better for patients overall. It’s now become the fourth pillar of cancer care.”

Just over 10 years ago, she started developing the IO programme in Leeds and the service has gone from strength-to-strength, with outcomes for patients among the top 10 in the world.

“For me, it’s a real privilege to be here,” Dr Wah said.

“I feel fortunate to be in the position to be able to develop this.”

And a whole booklet of thank you letters shows how grateful patients are.

“It’s the most amazing thing to see a patient before and a patient after. Each and every kidney I save, I say is a miracle.”

For one patient, the fact he could have image-guided tumour ablation prevented his health deteriorating to a potentially life-threatening level.

John Brett had his first kidney transplant in 1977 after a bout of measles as a child led to kidney problems.

This didn’t work and after years on dialysis, he had a successful operation in 1991.

However last year the 64-year-old was told he had developed a tumour in the transplanted kidney.

“If they removed that kidney, as it’s my only one, it would mean going back on dialysis – which I really didn’t want to do,” he said.

Instead he was referred to Dr Wah for treatment using an ice ball.

Following the procedure last September, tests show it has been successful.

Mr Brett is full of praise for the service, Dr Wah and her team.

“I feel like I’ve had a new lease of life,” he said. “I felt really unwell but I feel a real peace now.”

* Leeds is one of the two biggest centres in the country for the image-guided heat or cold treatment, and is also one of the world-leaders in the field.

Experts at St James’s Hospital have performed treatments for over 300 renal tumours using fire balls or ice balls.

For kidney cancer, the Leeds programme is ranked as one of the top 10 in the world, and the overall technical success rate using either heat or cold energy is 98 per cent.

Tim Marshall has travelled the world covering foreign affairs for Sky News.

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