Mar 19

Proton Beam Therapy as an Alternative to Traditional Radiation

The process of determining cancer treatment options can be overwhelming at best. The idea of having an induced sunburn due to radiation therapy or loss of hair from chemotherapy are concerns that have a significant impact. While no one wants to deal with these concerns, it is a part of the process that has to be explored. Treatments in chemotherapy and radiation therapy are widely available, but there is one treatment option that is not as common, but the benefits of understanding proton beam therapy can outweigh the apprehension of treatment.

Protons are positively charged particles found in the nucleus of an atom. The number of protons found in the nucleus is the atomic number. The atomic number is unique for each element. For example, Technetium has 43 protons. As long as there are 43 protons in the nucleus, the element will always be Technetium. Add one proton; the element is now Ruthenium with 44 protons. Thallium will always be 81 and Xenon is 54. These are represented on the periodic table of the elements in increasing chronological order starting at Hydrogen, with one proton.   In 1920, Ernest Rutherford termed the Hydrogen nucleus ‘proton’ since there is only one proton and no neutrons, after the Greek word ‘first’.

Proton Therapy has been developed out of the Rutherford experiments from the early 1920’s. Today it is a specialized form of radiotherapy. In order to use proton charged particles for treatment, ionization must occur.   Ionization is created when a positively charged proton interacts with a negatively charged electron cloud. Protons are much larger and heavier than electrons; therefore the electron is yanked out of its orbit. This is ionization, and the atom has now been protonated.

Physicians can take advantage of the protonated atom by using it in a particle accelerator. Ionizations from protons are driven through an electromagnetic field increasing in speed until they form a well-defined beam. The beam is duplicated at different angles, and then delivered to the targeted area. For this reason, proton beam therapy has been referred to as the superior form of radiation treatments.

When dealing with radiation, one of the concerns is scatter. The use of a particle accelerator creates a beam of protons that can target an affected area. Particles enter the body as a beam attenuating healthy tissue until the cells of a tumor are reached. There is a specific range of tissue damage expected along the route of ionizations and the surrounding healthy tissue is at risk. Charged particles have very little lateral side scatter due to the proton’s large mass, giving it an advantage over photon therapy where the radiation cannot be target specific. This reduces the healthy tissue affected during the deliverable dose. The lack of scatter has an advantage of not damaging tissues during exit. Uncharged particles which are used in intensity modulated radiation therapy damage tissues upon exit, causing the surrounding tissues to create side effects and the probability of secondary cancers.

Once the beams reach the tumor, there is a linear energy transfer that is strong enough to damage DNA inside the tumor. Proton Therapy targets double stranded DNA of cancerous cells, which is much more difficult to repair than single stranded DNA. Lethally damaging DNA in cancerous cells so the cell cannot duplicate and survive is the purpose of the proton therapy. Cancerous cells are undifferentiated cells and are vulnerable to radiation. If they try to duplicate themselves, the damaged cells have very little chance of survival due to chromosomal damage and deletions.

The physician can use this approach to direct the beams into the affected tissue, pinpointing the tumor to be destroyed and only have minor low dose effects to the surrounding tissue. Physicians have the ability to adjust the maximum peak velocity to a lower energy at 70 MeV for shallow cancerous cells found in head and neck tumors. In cancers that are not as superficial, the effects of the ions on deeper tissues seen in prostate cancers can deliver higher energy beams up to 250 MeV. By increasing the dose to the affected area, the patient has fewer treatments, less healthy cell damage, and negligible complications due to side effects.

By increasing exposure of a more precise approach to radiation treatments, patients are leading the charge by becoming proactive in their health care. Proton Therapy is beneficial as a non-invasive treatment option.  No incisions are made to the affected area so patients can have treatment on an outpatient basis. Treatments can be singular or multiple depending on the type of treatment needed.

There is no change in quality of life after treatment since side effects are either non-existent or minimal. There is also no need to be distant from friends and family due to the radiation exposure. Patients can add other treatments options to proton therapy such as chemotherapy if needed without decreasing its effectiveness. Children are the greatest advantage due to their young and undifferentiated cells that can be destroyed or mutilated by mainstream cancer treatments. This gives children the protection of curing their illness with less radiation exposure and side effects.

By using charged protons to damage tumor size and destroy cancerous DNA, proton therapy has advantages that preserve the quality of life. The versatility of protons in conjunction with chemotherapy, surgery and as a standalone product gives cancer victims a fighting chance to become a cancer survivor.


 Learn more about the history and availability of the is treatment from one of our users and one of the world’s leaders in cancer research and treatment , MD Anderson Cancer Center.

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