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Applied Radiation Biology and Radiotherapy Section

From the IAEA Division of Human Health

The body is made up of millions of normal, healthy cells. Cancer starts when something changes in a normal cell causing a cancer cell to grow, divide uncontrollably, make more cells and originate a tumour. If the cancer is discovered very late and nothing is done to treat it, the disease can spread to other parts of the body and form more tumours (metastasis). Special equipment is used to deliver high doses of radiation to kill cancer cells and stop cell growth and further formation. Sometimes radiation is the only treatment needed. Other times it is part of a patient’s cancer treatment plan along with surgery and chemotherapy.

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is a branch of medicine that focuses on the use of radiation to treat cancer. Radiotherapy is designed to use radiation to target and kill cells. In the case of cancer, when the radiation is applied to a cancerous tumour, or a mass of malignant cells, the targeted cells are damaged and killed, leading to a reduction of the tumour size or, in some cases, the disappearance of the mass.

Why is radiation therapy so important?

By 2020, up to 15 million people worldwide will be diagnosed with cancer every year, with 70% of these new cases occurring in the developing world;

Radiotherapy is an essential component in the treatment of cancer for both cure and palliation;

Radiation therapy is an integral component of effective cancer treatment and control and has also proven to be a cost effective modality. Of all cancer patients who are cured, 40% received radiation therapy;

The growing burden of cancer will place excessive demand on the already scarce radiotherapy services globally, with adverse consequences for patients with cancer.

What is the role of the IAEA?

To address the shortage of cancer treatment resources in low and middle income countries, the IAEA provides expertise in radiation oncology and cooperates with a variety of stakeholders, including other United Nations organizations, hospitals, governments and research institutes. The IAEA also promotes and coordinates research in clinical radiation oncology and applied radiation biology. Technical expertise in these fields is provided through technical cooperation projects which directly address cancer management in many countries around the world. Member States receive assistance in modernizing and establishing new radiotherapy facilities, brachytherapy services, new technologies and education programmes.

Radiotherapy needs coverage per country. (Image: E. Rosenblatt, IAEA).

What is the role of the IAEA?

To address the shortage of cancer treatment resources in low and middle income countries, the IAEA provides expertise in radiation oncology and cooperates with a variety of stakeholders, including other United Nations organizations, hospitals, governments and research institutes. The IAEA also promotes and coordinates research in clinical radiation oncology and applied radiation biology. Technical expertise in these fields is provided through technical cooperation projects which directly address cancer management in many countries around the world. Member States receive assistance in modernizing and establishing new radiotherapy facilities, brachytherapy services, new technologies and education programmes.