For years, various combinations of chemotherapy radiotherapy, surgery and sometimes hormones have been the mainstay of treatment for cancer. Radiotherapy can be highly effective, but if it needs to be delivered to a cancer deep in the body, the beams can cause damage to healthy surrounding tissue.
But proton beam therapy, which delivers protons from the heart of an atom at over 100,000 miles per second, can be directed with greater precision than traditional radiotherapy. And because protons are much smaller, they stop when they reach the tumour, reducing the risk of damaging surrounding structures. Proton beam therapy can also provide the same benefits as other forms of radiotherapy at lower doses.
The UK has had a single centre for treatment with low-energy proton beam therapy since 1989, which has been used to treat patients with eye cancers (usually melanomas). But, until now, the only option for NHS patients considered suitable for high-energy proton beam therapy has been to travel abroad. However, this year, The Christie in Manchester became the first UK hospital to offer this treatment, with another centre in London due to open in 2020.