08 February 2016
Proton Beam Therapy is as Effective as Other Cancer Treatments
Proton beam therapy is as effective and has fewer side effects in children than conventional radiotherapy, according to a new study.
The controversial cancer treatment received widespread media coverage in 2014 when the parents of a five year-old boy who had brain cancer removed him from hospital without the knowledge of staff so that he could be taken to receive the treatment abroad. He is now reported to be cancer-free.
Proton beam therapy is a type of radiotherapy. Unlike conventional x-ray radiotherapy, which uses high-energy beams of radiation to destroy cancerous cells but damages surrounding tissue, proton beam therapy uses a ‘particle accelerator’ to speed up the protons. These accelerated protons are targeted directly at tumours, reducing the dose and resulting damage to surrounding tissues and organs.
The technique is used to treat types of cancer in critical areas where it is vital to limit the amount of damage to surrounding tissue as much as possible. It has been found to be particularly effective at treating brain tumours in children whose brains are still developing. It is also used to treat adult cancers where tumours have developed in delicate areas of the body such as the spinal cord or optic nerve where potential damage could cause serious complications.
In the latest research, proton beam therapy was used to treat malignant brain tumours known as ‘medulloblastomas’ in 59 children aged between three and 21 in the United States.
Medulloblastomas are the most common type of malignant brain tumour in children. They are normally treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. However, conventional ‘photon’ radiotherapy has been linked with the risk of long-term complications such as hearing problems and cognitive impairment.
After five years, the survival rate of all the children who took part in the study was similar to patients who had been treated with conventional radiotherapy but there were fewer reported side effects to the heart and lungs.
Dr Torunn Yock of Massachusetts General Hospital said: “The major finding is that proton therapy is as effective as photon therapy in curing these patients and what is also very exciting is that it is maintaining these high rates of cure but doing so with less late toxicity, which has dramatic quality of life improvements."
Proton beam therapy can be very expensive and it is currently only available in the UK to treat eye cancers. The NHS is building two proton beam centres in hospitals in London and Manchester that are expected to open in 2018. Presently, the NHS sends patients abroad only if doctors believe they are ideally suited to receive the treatment. Since 2008, around 400 patients have been sent abroad – the majority of whom were children.
Karen Cathcart is a medical negligence solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.
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