A new state of the art medical facility in the United States is harnessing a new weapon in the cancer fighting arsenal: proton therapy. Medical experts say the procedure, a precise form of radiation to target tumors, offers new hope in the treatment of various types of cancer.
The M.D. Anderson Proton Therapy Center at the University of Texas is one of 25 institutions in the world that use proton therapy.
Traditional radiation therapy uses x-ray beams to shrink cancerous tumors. Large portions of the body are subject to radiation because X-rays cannot be delivered more accurately, so physicians limit the amount of radiation a patient undergoes to spare healthy tissue.
Proton therapy is a form of radiation therapy that is more precise. Protons are positively charged particles, which are accelerated to specific speeds in beams that penetrate the body, pinpointing tumorous growths to shrink them.
Dr. James Cox is head of radiation treatment at the M.D. Anderson Center. He says the center is the first medical facility to combine proton therapy with chemotherapy.
"Very frequently, we combine chemotherapy and radiation therapy together," he explains. "That has not been done in other centers around the world to any great degree thus far and it's one of the areas that we want to concentrate on and to set new examples of how we are having better tumor control and decreased effects on normal tissues, which leads to an overall better outcome."
Dr. Cox says because protons are more precise than x-rays and emit low doses of radiation, sparing healthy tissue surrounding the tumor, its ideal for treating cancer in children.
Proton therapy can be used on patients with cancers of the throat, eye, prostate, lung and brain among others.
According the World Health Organization (WHO), lung cancer is the most common form of cancer worldwide, killing one person every 30 seconds. Currently, there is no screening method that can detect the onset of lung cancer.
Dr. Ritsuko Komaki is professor of Radiation Oncology at the M.D. Anderson Center. She says proton therapy holds the most promise for treating lung cancer.
"One of the reasons why lung cancer outcome was so poor, because the imaging was not perfect," notes Dr. Komaki. "These days we can do a very thin sliced CT scan and we can draw exactly where the tumor is and then contour the normal structures, the heart and the lungs, the esophagus and spinal cord so we can treat just the place where the cancer is without radiating surround normal tissues."
Dr. Komaki says proton therapy is a good option for elderly patients.
"When patients become much older and they cannot go through surgery because of pulmonary function, they can have the treatment by radiation treatment," she adds. "We do have very successful treatment of small legions, less than three centimeters, is almost the same outcome as surgical outcome."
Dr. Cox says most other countries are using proton therapy from a physics standpoint and have yet to integrate it into medical facilities.
"Physics research facilities in all of these countries, including Japan, for example, are funded under a mechanism similar to the US Department of Energy," he explains. "It's not in the medical sphere; it's in the physics research sphere. And until the medical community, the medical administration in those countries arrives at a conclusion that this is really beneficial for patients, I think they will continue to be only in physics research facilities in many countries."
Dr. Cox says the M.D. Anderson Center is committed to sharing research and patient care practices with international colleagues.
"The scientific community is a community that is by definition open," ads Dr. Cox. "We are collaborating with many institutions. We are open to any kind of benefit that might be brought to patients anywhere in the world and we realize that proton therapy is not going to be available for everybody for a while, but we think it's going to grow and we want to help craft the justification for it's growing by the research that we do."
Over 40,000 patients from around the world have received proton therapy since its development in the late 1960s.
The Proton Therapy Center at the M.D. Anderson Center opened to patients in June 2006.