BACKGROUND: Endobronchial radiotherapy by a high dose rate remote after-loading technique (high dose rate brachytherapy) has become an established treatment for major airway occlusion by inoperable carcinoma of the bronchus. Only limited objective data on its effect on pulmonary physiology and on radiographic and bronchoscopic appearances are available. The aim of this study was to make a detailed assessment of patients before and after high dose rate brachytherapy to determine which investigations were useful and to generate data for comparing this with other methods of treatment. METHODS: Twenty patients with major airway obstruction by inoperable lung cancer underwent a detailed assessment before receiving endobronchial radiotherapy (15 Gy at 1 cm in a single fraction) and six weeks after treatment. This included chest radiography, computed tomography of the thorax, bronchoscopy including an obstruction index, five minute walking tests, isotope ventilation and perfusion lung scanning, and full lung function tests with maximum inspiratory and expiratory flow-volume loops. RESULTS: Nineteen patients (mean age 69 years) completed the study. Symptomatic improvement occurred in 17 patients. A collapsed lobe or lung, seen on the chest radiograph in 13, reexpanded in nine. Bronchoscopic appearances improved in 18, the mean obstruction index decreasing from 6.2 to 2.8. The isotope scans showed significant increases in the percentage of total lung ventilation (V) and perfusion (Q) measured over the abnormal lung (V 17.7% to 27.7%, Q 15.1 to 21.9%). Five minute walking distance (305 to 329 m), forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1 1.45 to 1.61 l), forced vital capacity (FVC 2.17 to 2.48 l) and ratio of forced expiratory to forced inspiratory flow rate at 50% vital capacity (FEF50/FIF50 0.58 to 0.88) all increased significantly. CONCLUSIONS: Endobronchial radiotherapy led to subjective benefit in most cases in terms of symptoms and bronchoscopic and radiological appearances. There was objective improvement in spirometric indices and in exercise tolerance with increased pulmonary ventilation and perfusion and evidence of decreased intrathoracic airway obstruction.
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