Everything You Should Know About Proton Beam Therapy

Professor Karol Sikora, from the Rutherford Cancer Centres, answers all of our questions on proton beam therapy

What is proton beam therapy?

Proton beam therapy is a type of radiotherapy used in cancer treatment. It delivers heavily charged protons in a more targeted manner, to effectively destroy the cancer but reduce damage to surrounding tissue and organs.

How does proton therapy work?

Protons deliver the same damage to cancer cells as radiotherapy—however, they can be controlled to stop at a defined point in the body. This means that the normal tissue beyond the cancer receives no radiation at all.  

What are the benefits of proton therapy?

The treatment is incredibly precise and accurate, meaning that it targets the cancer with minimal side effects.

Who can benefit from proton therapy?

It is particularly beneficial as a way to treat hard-to-reach cancers, such as brain tumours or those near the spinal cord. Some of the cancers that can be treated with proton beam therapy include prostate, breast, lung, head and neck and sarcomas. Studies show that around 15 percent of patients treated with radiotherapy would do better with protons.

Can children be treated with proton therapy?

Absolutely. Proton therapy is particularly good for treating childhood cancers, especially tumours in the brain, head, neck, spinal cord, heart or lungs. Given its accuracy, and the fact that it limits radiation exposure to healthy tissues with fewer long-term side effects, this is a key factor for choosing the treatment in child patients whose tissues are still developing.
How does proton therapy compare to conventional radiotherapy?

Both are beneficial for different cancers and situations. There are more than 150,000 cancer patients in the U.K every year that are treated with radiation therapy, of which 90,000 require radical radiotherapy. Around 15% of these patients would be better treated with proton therapy.

How can a patient expect their proton therapy to be planned and delivered?
Whenever a patient comes to us, we offer a double planning procedure where we look at their individual situation and work out the likelihood of success if they were treated with conventional radiotherapy or proton beam therapy. We will then use that outcome as the basis for deciding on their treatment.

Once proton beam therapy has been decided, we then work with patients where they visit the centre five days a week for around a month in order to have short, but powerful, sessions using the proton beam. These sessions are condensed enough that the patient can continue with their everyday life – we have patients who come to our centre in Newport in between the school run and going to work. Given the relatively few side effects, it means they can continue their day-to-day life with relative ease.

What are the side effects of proton therapy?

These are similar to any radiotherapy technique, but less. They depend on the part of the body being irradiated.

How successful is proton therapy?

While the treatment has proven hugely successful around the world and has been used in countries such as Germany or the USA for thirty years, the success rate totally depends on the individual patient and their circumstances. Double planning assesses every patient and works out if the treatment is the best course of action for his or her particular situation.

Proton beam therapy is not a panacea for all cancers, however it has proven to be extremely effective for certain ones and we are already seeing these results.

How can UK patients access proton therapy?
The Rutherford Cancer Centre South Wales, is currently the only place in the U.K to offer this treatment. However the NHS are due to open a centre at the Christie Hospital in Manchester at some point in the coming months. The demand for treatment will be considerably higher and will require further centres throughout the U.K, so we are working to open centres up and down the country in order to treat the large number of patients who would benefit from this innovative treatment. From next year, our centres in Northumberland and Reading will have proton beam therapy available and we are constructing another in Liverpool to ensure that this treatment can be accessed by as many people as possible who need it.

Professor Karol Sikora is the chief medical officer of Proton Partners International, which runs the Rutherford Cancer Centres – currently the only place to offer high energy proton beam therapy treatment in the U.K. For more information, please visit www.therutherford.co.uk.

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