Life saving proton therapy has caught the attention of the media and been dubbed a “miracle cure for cancer.”  Proton therapy is a form of radiotherapy treatment where positively-charged protons are focused into beams and controlled by large particle accelerators.   Once the proton beams reach the cancer they damage the cell, which stop it from multiplying.  Other, more conventional, radiology treatments work on the same principles, with x-rays being used instead of protons.

Whilst there are a number of benefits to proton therapy treatment, the recent press coverage has not done justice to the NHS’ existing and effective range of cancer treatments.

The UK is praised as having one of the best healthcare systems in the world and is not unaware of the benefits of proton therapy.  In fact, the Proton Therapy Centre at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in Merseyside led the way by being the first hospital in the world to have its own cyclotron (a machine that generates proton beams), which has been used since 1989 to treat eye cancer. However, in more recent times the USA and other countries in Europe have developed proton therapy, by using high energy particle accelerators which makes it appropriate to treat forms of rare cancer.  The UK is scheduled to open proton centres with this technology in September 2018.

It is yet to be seen whether proton therapy possesses any long-term benefits over other x-ray treatment.  Data currently gathered is skewed by the fact that proton therapy is only conducted on ‘optimum’ candidates.   However, the nature of protons mean that once they have reached and damaged the cancerous cells, the beams stop and do not carry through to the tissue beyond.  Also, the concentrated nature of the proton beam makes it ideal for treating ‘hard to reach’ parts of the body.  This is not the case for x-rays, which continue beyond the targeted cells causing inevitable damage to surrounding tissue and healthy cells.   This can cause serious side effects. However, technological advances have meant that x-rays can be tailored to the size of the patient’s tumour and can even change according to a patient’s breathing pattern, thus minimising the damage caused to healthy tissue.

The main benefit of proton beam therapy over other treatment lies in it being seen as a ‘child friendly’ alternative by minimising the effect of radiation, which is particularly important when treating those at an early age.  Since 2008, the NHS has sent 370 patients abroad for proton therapy treatment, two-thirds of whom were children.  However this figure does not take into account the children who were eligible for the treatment but were too sick to travel.    These are the patients who will benefit from the UK’s new proton centres which are expected to treat 1500 patients per year, considerably more than the number of UK patients receiving the treatment now.

The media presents conventional radiation as a poor substitute.  However, this is not true: both are safe and effective but, as with any treatment, each is appropriate in different circumstances.   Introducing proton therapy to the UK should be seen as an exciting development, facilitating treatment to those with the rarest forms of cancer and enabling them to have the best possible chance of survival.