2 Nov 2016

Proton beams offer cancer therapy options

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:27 pm on 2 November 2016

An emerging way of treating cancer is on the agenda when scientists from 27 countries gather in Wellington this week to share the latest advances in nanotechnology and ion beam technology.

It's the first time the International Conference on Ion Beam Modification of Materials has been hosted in New Zealand.

Proton Beam Therapy

Proton Beam Therapy Photo: The National Association for Proton Therapy

Professor Karen Kirby of Manchester University is one of the speakers and is an expert on proton beam therapy - which is seen as a new weapon in the arsenal used for treating tumours.

Proton beam therapy works by firing protons at two-thirds of the speed of light into the body where a tumour is located, which then damages the cancerous DNA, while avoiding the healthy tissue surrounding it.

The treatment has been developed as an alternative to radiotherapy, which has a 40 percent effectiveness rate and is difficult to use on tumours that are close to critical organs.

“It is part of the toolkit. You can’t say, you can’t use radiotherapy or chemo, we need to use everything we can to kill the tumour without damaging the healthy tissue. So I think it is something that will develop and it is part of the armoury that we have got to defeat cancer.”

Proton beam therapy is the preferred option for treating tumours in the head and the spine, and for treating children.

“Radiotherapy can put a little damage into healthy tissue which can then sometimes develop into cancers later in life. With children you try to keep the damage to healthy tissue as low as you possibly can, because their tissues are much more sensitive.”

Clinical trials are currently underway in the UK and Japan, and the technology is being developed to make it smaller and cheaper. The current model is about the size of a small family car and weighs about as much as a jumbo jet.

Although the technology is not yet available in New Zealand, its development would not have been possible without the contribution of Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the structure of the atom 100 years ago.

Professor Kirby is excited about the development still to come.

“It’d be great if in a few years’ time being told you’ve got cancer is like being told you’ve got a cold.”