Proton beam therapy is a relatively modern targeted treatment for treating patients with cancer. It utilises protons, as opposed to photons used in conventional radiotherapy, to accurately target the tumour and interrupt the process of cancer cells, preventing growth, duplication and eventually leading to the death of the cancer cells. The aim of proton beam therapy can be to kill cancer cells, provide relief from cancer symptoms by shrinking the tumour or to reduce the likelihood of cancer returning. Proton beam therapy can be used as a standalone treatment but can also be used in a combination of treatments including chemotherapy, immunotherapy and most commonly, surgery.
How Does Proton Beam Therapy Work?
There are several machines that are used to deliver proton beam therapy. First, hydrogen atoms are split into protons and electrons before the protons are injected into the cyclotron and accelerated to extremely high speeds. Once they’ve reached their peak speed, they are transferred to an Energy Selection System that adjusts their energy depending on the depth the protons need to travel within the body.
The adjusted energy protons are then sent through a beam transport system before arriving into the gantry where the beam is delivered into the patient. The gantry is installed in the treatment room and provides a full movement array that allows for the gantry to spin 360 degrees around the patient and deliver treatment from the best possible angle. State-of-the-art treatment delivery systems are enabled with pencil beam scanning, this highly accurate method of delivering proton beam therapy ensures the cancer cells are individually ‘painted’ with the proton beam.
The Benefits of Proton Beam Therapy
Proton beam therapy offers a number of advantages when used to treat cancer in patients, due to the higher accuracy for targeting cancer cells during treatment.
It’s common for patients to be treated using conventional radiotherapy to experience severe nausea or fatigue due to the radiation that surrounding healthy cells receive during treatment delivery. Patients undergoing proton beam therapy are much less likely to suffer these side effects or if side effects are experienced, they are much less severe in nature.
Additionally, as proton beam therapy accurately targets the cancer cells, higher doses can be offered in individual treatments, potentially reducing the total number of treatments the patient requires. This is particularly advantageous for cancers located in highly sensitive areas such as the brain, head and neck which can cause long-term negative side effects where healthy cells receive radiation during treatment.
The Impact of Proton Beam Therapy on Treating Cancer
Currently, access to proton beam therapy treatment is still improving but as the treatment becomes more wide spread and available, more people will be able to benefit from receiving proton beam therapy. In addition to advantages to patients, healthcare services can also benefit from utilising proton beam therapy as fewer treatment sessions are required to be effective which improves the flow of patients, allowing more cancer patients to be treated over a fixed amount of time.
As more patients can be treated, a fewer number of oncologists and consultants are required which can save healthcare centres and public health services huge amounts, allowing them to put more funding into researching improved treatments and medical services. However, large investment is required to build suitable proton beam therapy centres and while there are several centres currently available in the UK, more are required to deal with the increasing number of cancer patient diagnoses every day.
Patients can currently be referred for proton beam therapy treatment in several private and NHS cancer centres in the UK. The Rutherford Cancer Centres, the largest provider of proton beam therapy in the UK, currently have four cancer centres and intend to open more centres in the future, providing a state-of-the-art cancer centre within 90 minutes of all major UK locations.
The future of cancer treatment is always improving, and proton beam therapy is a major leap in enhancing the cancer treatment process, providing patients a less intrusive healthcare service that facilitates a relatively normal day-to-day lifestyle.