Proton beam therapy may be as effective as radiotherapy

Cancer health treatment
Photo credit: National Cancer Institute

Proton beam therapy, a treatment which delivers targeted doses of high-energy particles to tumours therefore minimising exposure to healthy surrounding tissues, has been found to be “as effective” as conventional radiotherapy when treating certain childhood cancers.

The research, published in The Lancet Oncology, reports similar survival rates as radiotherapy treatment, where X-rays are used to eradicate cancer cells and shrink tumours, which can result in some damage to otherwise healthy adjacent tissue. Side-effects can range from mild to severe, depending on the area of the body treated and the individual patient, and can be short-term or cause long-term damage.

The study authors looked at 59 patients aged between three and 21, all of whom had been diagnosed with medulloblastoma, the most common type of malignant brain tumour in children. In the UK, medulloblastoma accounts for 15-20% of all cases of brain tumours, with between 60-80 new cases diagnosed each year in children under the age of 16.

Five years’ post-diagnosis, the survival rate of those treated with proton beam therapy were found to be similar to those who had been treated with conventional radiotherapy, but the former group were found to have no resultant damage to the gastrointestinal system and the heart and lungs - said to be a relatively common side-effect of radiotherapy treatment. In the children who had undergone proton beam therapy, some mild to moderate hearing loss was observed, with some impact on IQ and growth hormone production, after effects that are not unusual following treatment for brain cancer.

Professor Gillies McKenna, Head of the Department of Oncology and Director of the CRUK/MRC Institute for Radiation Oncology, University of Oxford, describes the results as “sufficiently better than conventional treatment”, adding: “we can confidently say that for many children this may be a better treatment, and we can expect the results to continue to improve”.

“More targeted and less toxic treatments”

Professor McKenna adds: “Methods for delivering proton treatment have been improved since this study was initiated to reduce, for example, the dose to the inner ear. Furthermore, we understand much more about the underlying mutations and genetic changes that cause this disease that may allow us to create more targeted and less toxic treatments, including in the chemotherapy portion of treatment.”

According to NHS Choices, proton beam therapy can be used to treat tumours of the spinal cord, prostate cancer, lung and liver cancers and some children’s cancers. In the UK, it is currently only available to treat eye cancers, however, the UK’s first proton beam therapy facility, funded by the Welsh government, is expected to open later this year in Newport. Patients can also apply to the NHS for funding to undergo proton beam therapy abroad.

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