For a wide range of cancers, radiotherapy using X-rays has been a very effective treatment.
Radiation therapy is second only to surgery in terms of achieving a cure. Modern radiotherapy is very good at targeting the tumour but some X-rays will still pass through the tumour and exit the body. This means a significant amount of normal tissue can be irradiated unnecessarily. Irradiating normal tissue can cause problems in the future. Examples of problems include lack of growth in those tissues and problems such as an organ not working properly or a risk of second cancers in the future.
Proton beam therapy works a little differently. When proton beam therapy is delivered the normal tissues beyond the tumour can be spared, as protons can be made to ‘stop’ where they are needed. This reduces the risks of long-term side effects from the treatment. It also allows us, in some cases, to give higher doses of radiotherapy for tumours that are difficult to treat because they are close to parts of the body that are sensitive to radiation.
Facilities around the world have been treating patients with proton beam therapy for some time. Generally, children and young adults are thought to benefit most as their normal tissues are developing. Some adult patients are thought to benefit too, depending upon the type of tumour and where it is in the body.
The following list is not exhaustive or applicable in all cases, but includes examples of where proton beam therapy could offer real benefits to patients.
Children and teenagers/young adults
- Some brain tumours
- Some tumour types in the head and neck area
- Some tumour types near the base of skull or spine
- Some soft tissue tumours
- Some tumour types in the pelvis
- Some tumours that are difficult to treat because they are close to sensitive organs, for example, close to the base of the skull or the spine.
The Christie is the first NHS high-energy proton beam therapy centre in the UK as part of a £250m programme for a national proton beam therapy service. However, some patients who are thought to benefit from proton beam therapy will still be referred abroad for the time being. This will be the case until the proton beam therapy centre at The Christie and the proton beam therapy service at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – which opened in 2021 – are treating at full capacity.
NHS England has developed referral criteria to define which patients receive their treatment overseas and which are referred into the NHS service during the transition period. You can read more about this in our proton beam therapy FAQs.