In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the advent of more accurate linear accelerators (linacs) and image-guidance technology for delivering therapeutic X-rays to prostate cancer changed the dose that could be safely given. In the late 1980s, the typical dose was only in the mid-60 Gy range. By the early 2000s most of the top prostate cancer treatment centers were delivering 80 Gy (at 1.8 or 2.0 Gy per treatment) with higher cure rates and lower toxicity. Dose escalation for primary treatment of prostate cancer was a resounding success and became the standard of care.
However, dose escalation was not utilized appreciably in salvage radiation treatment (SRT) after prostatectomy. The reasons doses were kept lower in the salvage setting were that:
- Toxicity might be higher because radiation could be especially damaging when applied to tissue that had been cut or stressed by surgery.
- Without the shielding effect of the prostate in place, sensitive structures like the bladder neck, the rectum, the penile bulb, and the urethra would receive the full brunt of the radiation.
- Unlike the relatively large tumors in an intact prostate, the cancer in the prostate bed was small or microscopic and didn’t need as large a dose of radiation to eradicate it.
Current guidelines by the American Urological Association (AUA) and The American Society of Radiation Oncologists (ASTRO) establish a minimum dose of 64-65 Gy for SRT, but do not establish an optimum dose, citing lack of available evidence. At the top treatment centers, radiation oncologists routinely deliver doses as high as 70 Gy, but seldom higher. The outstanding question is: what is the optimum dose for SRT? That is, what dose offers the best chance at a cure with acceptable toxicity?
The Dose/Response Curve
Radiation oncologists talk about an S-shaped “dose/response curve.” At the bottom of the “S,” we know that at very low radiation doses there is very little “response,” meaning very few cancer cells are killed. At a certain radiation level, a lot more cancer cells are killed, and even a small increase in dose will kill a lot more cancer cells. This is called the “steep” part of the dose/response curve. After the steep part, adding more dose doesn’t kill a lot more cancer cells, but it begins to kill off healthy cells, increasing toxicity. The optimal dose is reached just before this happens at the top of the steep part. Below is what a dose/response curve looks like:
Dr. Christopher King (see this link) analyzed data from 71 studies, representing 10,034 patients treated who received SRT between 1996 to 2015 to see if the data conformed to a dose/response curve. He found an excellent fit:
- SRT dose was the single most important factor correlated with recurrence-free survival
- PSA at the time of SRT was the second most important factor
- Other factors (stage, Gleason score, positive margins, lymph node invasion, and use of adjuvant ADT) were less important.
- At an SRT dose of 66 Gy, half the patients were recurrence-free after SRT
- Recurrence-free survival increased by 2 percentage points for each additional Gy of SRT dose.
- The dose/response curve for SRT fit almost perfectly to the dose/response curve for primary RT.
How much better cancer control can we expect?
It’s hard to know how high recurrence-free survival can get if the dose is increased. The statistics suggest that increasing the SRT dose from 66 Gy to 76 Gy will increase recurrence-free survival from 50% to 70% at 5 years of follow-up. But this is unknown territory, and in some patients, undetectable distant metastases will have already occurred. Of the 71 studies reviewed in this meta-analysis, only 4 included doses above 70 Gy. Dr. King is proposing a clinical trial where patients are randomized to receive 66 Gy or 76 Gy.
76 Gy for SRT – is that safe?
Only one study included a dose this high. Ost et al. treated 136 patients. 5-year biochemical recurrence-free survival was 56%, but patients were treated fairly late – median PSA had already reached 0.8 ng/ml by the time SRT began, and most had adverse pathology findings. They report reasonable late toxicity: 4 patients (3%) suffered a grade 3 urinary event, and 1 case of a grade 3 rectal adverse event. However, they do note that a lot of the grade 2 toxicity seemed to be chronic rather than transient. 39% suffered long-lasting grade 2 urinary toxicity, and 18% suffered from long-lasting grade 2 rectal toxicity. I assume patients will be excluded from Dr. King’s clinical trial if they still have urinary issues from surgery. There is no data on the effect of dose escalation on erectile dysfunction.
There has been one randomized clinical trial of SRT dose escalation in the modern era. The SAKK 09/10 trial found little difference in acute toxicity symptoms at 70 Gy compared to 64 Gy, but patient-reported urinary symptoms worsened.
Can SBRT be used instead of IMRT?
There have been a few clinical trials of hypofractionated SRT that seem promising (see this link). UCLA will be starting a trial next year as well. An IMRT dose of 76 Gy is biologically equivalent in its cancer control to 5 SBRT treatments totaling 33 Gy.
The challenges for SBRT are greater than for IMRT. Because the dose per treatment is so high, even a small “miss” can increase toxicity and reduce effectiveness. It is difficult to use fiducials in the prostate bed, and the soft tissue is highly deformable and subject to motion from the bowels and bladder. The radiation oncologist will have to use soft tissue landmarks and site them multiple times per treatment. A filled bladder and good bowel prep are important, as is a very fast linac. Careful planning and strict adherence to dose constraints to organs at risk are essential.
Implications for pelvic lymph node treatment
If prostate cancer in the prostate bed requires almost 80 Gy, what can we infer about microscopic cancer that has spread to pelvic lymph nodes? It would seem that that cancer would be equally radioresistant. The pelvic lymph nodes area is often treated with a dose of about 50 Gy. Unfortunately, as the radiation field increases to extend to the entire pelvic area, many more organs are subject to toxic reactions. The enteric tissue of the small bowel is particularly prone to late reactions. In a database analysis at Fox Chase Cancer Center, patients treated with 56 Gy to the whole pelvis for high-risk prostate cancer may have had gastrointestinal reactions as long as 9 years later. We await the findings of randomized clinical trials (RTOG 0534 and PRIAMOS1) to tell us whether such treatment is effective.
Discuss with your radiation oncologist
Although Dr. King’s meta-analysis is impressive in the amount of data represented, it is not a randomized trial that would change clinical standards on its own. Even so, it is certainly worth discussing with one’s radiation oncologist before committing to a treatment plan. There are many considerations for the patient - especially his current status with regard to urinary and erectile function. For patients with few adverse pathology findings (e.g., long PSA doubling time, low Gleason score, no obvious capsular penetration), the risk of extra toxicity may not be worthwhile. It’s a judgment each patient must make for himself.
Note: Thanks to Dr. Christopher King for allowing me to see the full text of his study.