Optimising Radiation Therapy Dose to the Swallowing Organs at Risk: An In Silico Study of feasibility for Patients with Oropharyngeal Tumours


Recent evidence suggests that reducing radiotherapy dose delivered to specific anatomical swallowing structures [Swallowing Organs at Risk (SWOARs)] may improve swallowing outcomes post-treatment for patients with head and neck cancer. However, for those patients with tumours of the oropharynx, which typically directly overlap the SWOARs, reducing dose to these structures may be unachievable without compromising on the treatment of the disease. To assess the feasibility of dose reduction in this cohort, standard IMRT plans (ST-IMRT) and plans with reduced dose to the SWOARs (SW-IMRT) were generated for 25 oropharyngeal cancer patients (Brouwer et al. in Radiother Oncol 117(1):83–90, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.radonc.2015.07.041, 2015; Christianen et al. in Radiother Oncol 101(3):394–402, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.radonc.2011.05.015, 2011). ST-IMRT and SW-IMRT plans were compared for: mean dose to the SWOARs, volume of pharynx and larynx receiving 50 Gy and 60 Gy (V50 and V60 respectively) and overlap between the tumour volume and the SWOARs. Additionally, two different SWOARs delineation guidelines (Brouwer et al. in Radiother Oncol 117(1):83–90, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.radonc.2015.07.041, 2015; Christianen et al. in Radiother Oncol 101(3):394–402, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.radonc.2011.05.015, 2011) were used to highlight differences in calculated volumes between existing contouring guidelines. Agreement in SWOARs volumes between the two guidelines was calculated using a concordance index (CI). Despite a large overlap between the tumour and SWOARs, significant (p < 0.05) reductions in mean dose to 4 of the 5 SWOARs, and V50/V60 for the pharynx and larynx were achieved with SW-IMRT plans. Low CIs per structure (0.15–0.45) were found between the two guidelines highlighting issues comparing data between studies when different guidelines have been used (Hawkins et al. in Semin Radiat Oncol 28(1):46–52, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.semradonc.2017.08.002, 2018; Brodin et al. in Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 100(2):391–407, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijrobp.2017.09.041, 2018). This study found reducing dose to the SWOARs is a feasible practice for patients with oropharyngeal cancer. However, future prospective research is needed to determine if the extent of dose reduction achieved equates to clinical benefits.

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The authors wish to thank the speech pathology department and radiation therapy department at the Prince of Wales Hospital and Princess Alexandra Hospital for their contributions and support to this project. This project was funded by the Head and Neck Cancer Research Fund at Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney Australia.


This project was funded by the Head and Neck Cancer Research Fund at Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney Australia.

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Correspondence to Molly K. Barnhart.

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Barnhart, M.K., Cartmill, B., Ward, E.C. et al. Optimising Radiation Therapy Dose to the Swallowing Organs at Risk: An In Silico Study of feasibility for Patients with Oropharyngeal Tumours. Dysphagia 34, 869–878 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00455-019-09983-y

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  • Head and neck cancer
  • Radiation therapy planning
  • Swallowing organs at risk
  • Dose optimisation
  • Dysphagia