120 years after radiotherapy was invented, a revolutionary new treatment takes shape
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 and also a revolutionary new treatment takes shape.
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.
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.
If you would like further information please do contact me.