What is cancer radiotherapy and why do we need proton beam therapy?

Proton beam therapy is radiation therapy that uses heavier particles instead of the X-rays

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Australia: In last night’s federal budget, the government dedicated up to A$68 million to help set up Australia’s first proton beam therapy facility in South Australia. The government says this will help Australian researchers develop the next generation of cancer treatments, including for complex children’s cancers.Proton beam therapy is radiation therapy that uses heavier particles (protons) instead of the X-rays used in conventional radiotherapy. These particles can more accurately target tumours closer to vital organs, which can be especially beneficial to patients suffering from brain cancer and children whose organs are still developing and are more vulnerable to damage.

So, the facility will also be an alternative to conventional radiotherapy for treating certain cancer. But what is traditional radiotherapy, and how will access to proton beam therapy improve how we manage cancer?

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy, together with surgery, chemotherapy and palliative care, are the cornerstones of cancer treatment. Radiotherapy is recommended for half of cancer patients.

It is mostly used when the cancer is localised to one or more areas. Depending on the cancer site and stage, radiotherapy can be used alone or in combination with surgery and chemotherapy. It can be used before or after other treatments to make them more effective by, for example, shrinking the tumour before chemotherapy or treating cancer that remains after surgery.

How it works

Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895 and within a year, the link between exposure to too much radiation and skin burns led scientists and doctors to pursue radiation in cancer treatment..

Benefits and side effectsRadiotherapy’s targeting technology has made a significant difference to many cancers, in particular early-stage lung and prostate cancers. It is now possible to have effective, low toxicity treatments for these with one to five radiotherapy sessions.

For early-stage lung cancer studies estimate with radiotherapy, survival three years after diagnosis is at 95%. For prostate cancer, one study estimates survival at the five year mark is about 93%.

Other radiotherapy challengesThere are several challenges to current radiotherapy. It is often difficult to differentiate the tumour from healthy tissue, and even experts do not always agree on where exactly the tumour is. (READ MORE)

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