New Zealand cancer patients have joined a major international trial designed to see if a shorter course of toxic chemotherapy is as effective as the standard 24 weeks of treatment and less harmful.
So far eight bowel-cancer patients, of an expected 40, have joined the trial, after the Gastro-intestinal Cancer Institute, a charity, raised the $60,000 needed for New Zealand public hospitals to take part.
The drug oxaliplatin is one part of the chemotherapy given after bowel surgery to patients in whom the disease had already spread to lymph nodes at the time of diagnosis.
Adding oxaliplatin significantly increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
But oxaliplatin can also cause a variety of debilitating side-effects including fatigue, nausea and numbness, tingling and pain in the fingers or toes.
Cancer specialist Professor Bridget Robinson, of Otago University at Christchurch, said the peripheral nerve problems caused by the oxaliplatin were very unpleasant and could spread to the hands and feet, lasting in some cases for years.
The problems tended to be worse in winter and could make fine-movement tasks, such as typing, difficult and could even cause trouble with walking.
The side-effects begin with the first dose and build up over time.
Professor Robinson said it was likely - although not certain, hence the need for a trial - that taking the chemotherapy for 12 weeks was as effective against the cancer as the 24-week course.
This belief was based on the outcomes in many patients who had stopped oxaliplatin early during previous trials because of the side- effects building up.
"That's not definitive evidence that it's good enough, but it suggests it's probably going to be okay."
The patients, who are randomly assigned to either 12 or 24 weeks, receive state-funded treatment at public hospital cancer centres. The money raised by the institute pays for their extra monitoring, the recording of the data and sending it to the trial centre in Britain.
They will be followed up for three years and possibly longer.
The New Zealand patients will be among 9500 on the trial internationally.