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Target Breast Cancer: Set Proton Beams for UK

Proton Beam Breast Cancer

First Proton Beam therapy centre in the UK at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester

2023 sees the launch of a new treatment for breast cancer to augment existing radiotherapy techniques: Proton Beam Therapy.

Trials being conducted aim to target breast cancers more precisely than traditional radiotherapy which it is hoped will reduce the risk of heart problems. Heart problems are a potential side effect of current radiotherapy techniques due to off-target radiation which can hit the heart.

Proton Beam Therapy

During proton beam therapy, high energy protons, the positively charged components of atoms, are targeted to certain cancers including brain, head, neck and now breast cancers. While the process should be painless there are side effects associated with all forms of radiotherapy.

There are currently two NHS centres capable of delivering proton beam therapy in the UK, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust (Manchester) and University College London Hospital (UCLH) NHS Foundation Trust.

The first UK patient treated was at Christie in 2018.

Breast Cancer

30,000 people in the UK receive radiotherapy for breast cancer as part of their treatment. Standard radiotheraphy involves the use of high energy x-rays which kill cancer cells, increasing survivability and lowering the risk of a recurrence.

This standard treatment while effective, comes with a small (less than 1 per cent) chance of future heart problems in later life. Due to the proximity of breast cancers to the heart some of these x-rays can spill over and hit the heart, causing problems down the line.

“Radiotherapy is a very effective part of treatment for breast cancer that helps to lower the risk of cancer returning and has been shown to improve survival. However, effectively delivering standard radiotherapy can be difficult when the patient’s breast tissue and lymph nodes are located close to their heart, or they are already at risk of heart problems.”

Professor Judith Bliss, Director of the Cancer Research UK-funded Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit at The Institute of Cancer Research, London

New trial

The new trial plans to enrol 192 people from across the UK to find out whether proton beam therapy can deliver the same treatment effect as x-ray treatment while also minimising radiations delivered to the heart.

This trial will only enrol those deemed most at risk from future heart problems were x-ray therapy to be prescribed. Researchers will target patients estimated to have a two per cent or more lifetime risk of heart problems from traditional radiotherapy will be invited to take part.

The trial is being conducted by a collaboration of researchers from the University of Cambridge, The Royal Marsden NHS Trust and the Institute of Cancer Research, London.

The trial, entitled PARABLE or Proton beam therapy in patients with breast cancer: evaluating early and late effects is funded jointly by the National Institute for Health and Care Research and the Medical Research Council partnership.

“The UK is currently leading the way in developing the evidence base to demonstrate when proton beam radiotherapy can provide significant clinical benefit to some patients over conventional radiotherapy.
“It is exciting to see the launch of the first trial aiming to demonstrate the benefit of this treatment for a subset of patients with breast cancer.”

Professor Jonathan Wadsley, National Specialty Lead for Radiotherapy and at the NIHR

Final Thought

While the current NHS crisis dominates the headlines it’s important to remember that the UK remains a leading power in the life sciences which remain an asset to the UK economy. Curia’s Innovation and Life Sciences Commission’s latest report shows that marrying the innovative and thriving life sciences industry to the NHS can help to deliver the health service we all hope for.

View the launch of the NHS Innovation and Life Sciences Commission’s 2022 report, featuring Steve Brine MP, Chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee here

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