Among the several forms of cancer treatment used today, few are as effective as proton therapy. This special treatment method attacks cancer at the atomic level, using protons to destroy cancer cells. Packing enough power to destroy cancer cells completely — while also possessing enough accuracy and precision to leave surrounding tissue undisturbed — proton therapy is the treatment of choice for many different types of cancer, especially those that take hold in delicate areas, such as the brain. In this guide, we provide an overview of proton therapy — what it is, how it works, and why it’s so essential in the cancer treatment field.
Cancer In Context: Why Treatments Matter
Cancer is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet today. It’s also one of the most difficult to understand. It’s a disease that takes hold in the genes and causes cells to divide without stopping and spread into adjacent body tissue. Though several factors can increase the chances of cancer (such as smoking and exposure to radiation), someone’s susceptibility is difficult to determine. Cancer is quite common across the globe, affecting people of all ages and demographic groups. Here are some of the statistics from the National Cancer Institute surrounding cancer in the United States.
- The number of new cases of cancer in the U.S. is projected to be 439.2 per 100,000 women and men
- Next year’s number of cancer deaths in the U.S. is projected at nearly 163.5 per 100,000 women and men.
- 4% of U.S. women and men will be diagnosed with cancer during their lives
Cancer Treatments: A Closer Look
Though there is still no “cure” for care cancer, several treatments have proven to be effective in a number of situations. Below, we list the most-used cancer treatments and how they work.
Those suffering from cancer face several treatment options. In today’s oncology field, the most common cancer treatments include:
- Chemotherapy uses chemically-formulated medicines to kill cancer cells.
- X-Ray Radiation uses high-dosage X-rays to kill cancer cells.
- Surgery physically removes tumors and other cancerous growth to eliminate cancer.
- Immunotherapy introduces antibodies, interferons, and/or interleukins (made by the body or in a laboratory) to kill cancer cells.
While these methods are all still widely used in the oncology field today, they are not without their drawbacks.
What is Proton Therapy?
Proton therapy is a form of cancer treatment that uses high-speed protons to destroy cancer cells. Originally developed in the 20th century, proton therapy (often called “proton beam therapy”) uses a machine called a cyclotron or synchrotron to speed up protons and beam transport system to direct the protons to the targeted cancerous site.
Proton Therapy: How It Works
For protons to reach sufficiently high energy levels, they must first reach sufficiently high speeds. A machine called a synchrotron (or cyclotron) accomplishes this by using electromagnetism to speed protons up. Before that happens, however, the cyclotron must first isolate the protons it needs. It does this by separating a hydrogen atom into negatively charged electrons and positively charged protons.
With the protons isolated, the speeding up begins. This process starts with a vacuum tube and linear accelerator that increase protons’ energy to nearly 7 million electron volts in just a few microseconds. From the vacuum tube, protons are sent to the cyclotron, where a spiraling track does laps across two oppositely-charged magnets. Along that track, protons are pulled to higher and higher speeds, gaining more energy as they go. By the time protons are ready to leave the cyclotron, they have reached energy levels exceeding 70 million electron volts and, depending on the machine and type of cancer being treated, reaching nearly 250 million electron volts. This gives them enough energy to penetrate down to any level of the human body.
Once protons are energized, they are directed into a series of magnets that compromise a beam transport system designed to focus and direct the proton beam. A sophisticated computerized system controls the dissemination of the beam to keep patients safe. Next to the patient, the beam transport system is affixed to a gantry system that can be rotated to deliver the beam at any angle.
During the final step of proton therapy, a specialized device, called an aperture, shapes the width of the proton beam while another device, called a compensator, shapes the depth of the beam. When the proton beam comes through the nozzle, it’s traveling at roughly 125,000 miles per second.
The Advantages of Proton Therapy
Proton therapy has multiple unique properties that make it a preferable choice over other types of cancer treatments in many situations. Below, we outline some of the most significant benefits of proton therapy.
- Killing cancer cells is a delicate process. With less precise forms of cancer treatment — such as chemotherapy and X-ray radiation — there are often unwanted causalities. These causalities come in the form of destroyed nearby tissue that’s affected by the treatment along with cancer cells. Proton therapy avoids these causalities thanks to its precision. Directed proton beams can kill cancer cells in a relatively small area without affecting the surrounding tissue.
- Proton beams pack a lot of energy into a small beam. This allows them to completely eradicate cancerous sites, leaving all cancerous cells destroyed and minimizing the chance of recurrence.
- Reduced risk of treatment-caused tumors. Often, the radiation used cancer treatments like X rays can lead to the formation of new tumors while destroying old ones. Proton therapy reduces this risk by treating one area and eradicating cancer cells there.
- Short treatment times. Proton therapy sessions last anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and has shown minimal patient discomfort.
- Reduced side effects. Side effects from proton therapy may include fatigue or skin irritation. This is a marked improvement over the many side effects that often accompany chemotherapy, X-ray radiation, and immunotherapy, which can include: hair loss, higher susceptibility to infection, muscle aches, nausea, and more.
Interested in learning more about proton therapy? Reach out to our team at Red Grass Ventures and explore our website to learn more.