120 years after radiotherapy was invented, a revolutionary new treatment takes shape

7th September 2016

Proton Therapy equipment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota
Proton Therapy equipment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota


This year marks the 120th anniversary of the first time X-rays were used to treat cancer.

Student doctor Emil Grubbé used what was then cutting-edge technology on a patient in Chicago in 1896, just weeks after X-rays were discovered by German physics professor Wilhelm Röntgen.

The science developed and radiotherapy has been a mainstay of cancer treatment since the 1950s.

In the past 15 years a series of refinements have greatly improved the effectiveness of using X-rays to fight cancer. These include Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (IMRT) which my team and I at the Royal Marsden Hospital and the Institute of Cancer Research played a leading role in developing through a series of pioneering clinical trials.

IMRT marks a step change in radiotherapy because it delivers highly-targetted treatment to the cancer site with minimal damage to the surrounding tissue so reducing side-effects and improving quality of life.

Now the next generation of radiotherapy is being developed that offers even greater benefits for patients with less risk of side-effects. This new treatment again harnesses the power of particles – except in this case it is not X-rays but protons that are used.

Protons are positively charged particles that can, at high energy, destroy cancer cells.

The development of proton therapy is closely linked to the £4 billion Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, one of the most complex machines in physics.

A spin-off project of the collider is ADAM, or the Application of Detectors and Accelerators to Medicine. The ADAM team has designed and built the first unit of a linear accelerator for treating cancer known as LIGHT or Linac For Image Guided Hadron Therapy.

I have joined the board of Advanced Oncotherapy, a technology company that has partnered with leading healthcare and scientific organisations worldwide to overcome the two main challenges of proton therapy – the large size of the machines needed to accelerate the protons to their killing speed and the cost of the infrastructure needed to house those bus-sized machines.

We are working to develop a much smaller and significantly less expensive system so that proton therapy will be more accessible.

A revolutionary new treatment takes shape

At the moment, it is more of a “watch this space” situation rather than one of a new treatment being just around the corner. But progress is being made and applications for regulatory approval are being processed.  

So 120 years after the birth of radiotherapy, a new chapter in fighting cancer is opening that has the potential to revolutionise treatment. 

For more information about my work visit my CV page, or contact me here.


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