Feature Medical Technology

Proton beam therapy: more than a leap of faith?

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e4917 (Published 05 September 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e4917
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1London, UK
  1. jgornall{at}mac.com

Proton beam therapy continues to hotly divide medical opinion. As the UK steps up its investment as part of reforms to cancer treatment, Jonathan Gornall talks to experts around the world about the strengths and limitations of this controversial therapy

On Sunday 17 June a group of almost 20 children and their parents gathered at London Zoo. To the casual observer it could have been a birthday party, but it was a special day for every one of these children, who ranged in age from 18 months to 5 years.

This was a reunion of some of the 160 NHS cancer patients who have been sent overseas since 2008 for proton beam therapy. The treatment has divided medical opinion in the UK since the announcement in April that the Department of Health was to spend £250m (€318m; $394m) building two treatment centres in England, at the Christie Hospital in Manchester and University College Hospital in London.1

All the children at the zoo had been treated at the ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Oklahoma City, one of three centres (two in the United States and one in Switzerland) to which the NHS sends patients. In the past year, ProCure has treated 30 patients referred by the NHS.

Among them was Thomas Adams who, in January last year, at the age of 18 months, was found to have an anaplastic ependymoma, a rare and aggressive brain tumour. He had surgery at Alder Hey, followed by chemotherapy, but a scan three months later showed the tumour had returned. This time his parents were presented with another option: more surgery, followed by proton beam therapy.

Both Thomas’s parents are hospital doctors in Liverpool—he’s a registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology, she’s in genitourinary medicine—but before Thomas became ill they, like most people, knew little …

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