Proton therapy: a new cancer treatment

The latest projections show that ten years from now, 18 million Americans could be living with cancer.

Newscenter 16 goes underground for a sneak peek at the new machine that may help destroy tumors more efficiently than ever before.

Dr. Jeff Bradley, professor of radiation oncology at Washington University School of Medicine, is anxious to show off the new mini proton accelerator has been years in the making.

"It is a first of its kind."

While it looks like something that should be blasting into space, the 50-ton machine that's 12 feet underground will soon be zapping potential killers.

"Beyond what current cancer therapies can,” said Dr. Bradley.

With traditional therapies like X-ray, a patient's healthy tissues are often hit by radiation. This machine is so precise, doctors can hit tumors with higher doses, without damaging surrounding organs.

"For a tumor that's near the eye you don't want to spray it with excess radiation,” Dr. Bradley explained.

Until now proton beam facilities in the U.S. would cost more than $150 million dollars and required the space of a football field.

This machine cost 75 percent less and fits into a single room. While it could cost up to 20 percent more than traditional treatments, for some patients it could be worth it.

"It has less side effects,” Dr. Bradley said. “There should be less side effects because you have less normal tissues that are getting hit."

Kids who receive radiation for brain tumors are at risk of long term disability and stunted growth.

"Protons are actually ideal for many pediatric patients,” said Dr. Bradley.

While not everyone will benefit from proton therapy, a machine like this could give more patients more options.

"You might seek it out as a parent, I imagine I would. Now we can provide that,” Dr. Bradley said.

Providing protons and zapping cancer one patient at a time, proton therapy is especially useful to treat cancers around the eyes, face, base of the brain and spine.

Over the next few years more of the machines are expected to pop up across the country.

Dr. Bradley said as that happens treatment will become more affordable.

He plans to begin treating his first patients within the next few months.


PROTON THERAPY: Proton therapy is a type of radiation treatment that uses protons rather than x-rays to treat cancer. A proton is a positively charged particle that is part of an atom, the basic unit of all chemical elements, such as hydrogen or oxygen. At high energy, protons can destroy cancer cells.

Proton therapy was first used for cancer treatments in the United States in 1974 at a physics research laboratory. In 1990, the first U.S. hospital-based proton facility began treating patients. Since then, tens of thousands of people in the United States have received proton therapy. (SOURCE:

HOW PROTON THERAPY DIFFERS FROM OTHER RADIATION TREATMENTS: Like standard x-ray radiation, proton therapy is a type of external-beam radiation therapy. It painlessly delivers radiation through the skin from a machine outside the body. Protons, however, can target the tumor with lower radiation doses to surrounding normal tissues-approximately 60% lower, depending on the location of the tumor.

HOW IT WORKS: A machine called a synchrotron or cyclotron accelerates (speeds up) the protons. The speed of the protons is a sign of their high energy. The protons travel to a specific depth in the body based on their energy. After the protons reach the desired distance, they deposit the specified radiation dose around the tumor, leaving minimal radiation doses behind. In contrast, x-rays continue to deposit radiation doses in healthy tissues beyond the tumor as they exit the patient's body, potentially causing side effects.

Patients often receive proton therapy in an outpatient setting, meaning that it does not require hospital admission. The number of treatment sessions depends on the type and stage of the cancer. Sometimes, doctors deliver proton therapy in one to five proton beam treatments, generally using larger daily radiation doses. (SOURCE:

FIRST OF ITS KIND: After six years of planning, training and waiting, the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine received its new proton beam accelerator last October. Dr. Jeffrey Bradley, Washington University associate professor, Siteman Cancer Center radiation oncologist and director of the Kling Center for Proton Therapy, said the new proton therapy technology, called a superconducting synchrocyclotron proton accelerator, could begin treating cancer patients in October, pending FDA approval. The $20 million system, which arrived at Siteman is the first of its kind in the world because of its small size compared to existing proton beams that are typically housed in football field-sized buildings. This is the first single-room proton therapy unit in the world. The type of equipment is called a synchrocyclotron, and usually, they are large proton generating units that take up several buildings in a hospital. This unit is about the size of your kitchen table. It's small enough that it can rotate around the room and provide treatment at different areas. (

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Amy Reeves, MS, CCRP
314-432-3600 x 1022

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