New Proton Beam Treatment Targets Cancer Tumors

A new treatment developed by researchers uses proton beams to target cancer cells while leaving nearby cells undamaged. This new proton cancer treatment promises to minimize the effects of cancer treatment on tissues nearby to the tumor without the broader side effects of other methods.

Common treatments for cancer involve methods that target cancerous tumors but affect other parts of the body as well. Radiation treatments, while attempting to confine the beams to small areas of the patient's body in which the tumor exists, still affect nearby tissues. The effects include skin problems, cellular damage to nearby tissues and organs, nausea, changes in bone that can make it weaker, and many others.

Chemotherapy has many undesirable side effects as well, including nausea, anemia, bleeding, loss of hair, and weight reduction.

The type and severity of ill effects from traditional treatment varies with the type of cancer being treated. With the possibility of undesirable side effects from customary treatments in mind, medical research has been searching for a "magic bullet" that will go in and specifically target cancer cells without causing damage to nearby tissue.

Yves Jongen, an engineer and scientist in Belgium, is refining the new method for treating cancers with proton therapy. In a January 23 article, Jongen told CNN, "I started to designing [sic] equipment (for) proton therapy of cancer -- that was a radically new idea."

Encased in a thick concrete bunker that serves as a radiation shield, one of Jongen's cyclotron machines produces the proton beams to treat cancer patients. "In this space we accelerate the protons and we give them a higher and higher velocity until they reach two thirds of the speed of light -- that's 200,000 km per second and this acceleration takes place in the shape of a spiral," he said. "That's needed if you want to be able to penetrate one foot into the body of a patient."

With a patient prepared, proton beams are then directed into a room in which the focused proton beam targets only cancer cells. These cancer cells are destroyed, leaving most nearby cells unaffected.

The advantage of this treatment is the higher degree of precision by which cancer cells can be destroyed than other methods, making it useful where the tissue adjacent to a tumor is critical, such as brain lesions.

Still, proton beam therapy is not useful for all types of cancer. Proton therapy can be used for cancers where there are distinct tumors that can be targeted. It is not helpful, though, in systemic cancers like leukemia where there is not focal point to be attacked. As such, it cannot be used for treating all types of cancer.

Another down side of the treatment is the expense. Just one of these devices can cost $125 million. Jongen and his company, however, are working to produce a smaller version that will be more affordable for more treatment facilities. As patients and health practitioners see the technique becoming more available, demand will increase. CNN reports that there are presently 121 treatment rooms in the world, but that this number is expected to increase to around 300 rooms by 2018.

While not a perfect "magic bullet," proton beam therapy is providing a new way to apply targeted treatment for cancer, and will provide another weapon in the arsenal used to fight this disease.

[Image Credit: Penn Medicine's Roberts Proton Therapy Center and Ed Cunicelli]