In a world-first trial, breast cancer patients get proton beam therapy

"There is potential for proton beam therapy to reduce the likelihood of treatment-related heart problems that can occur in small groups of patients."
Deena Theresa
The Proton Beam Scanner.
The Proton Beam Scanner.

The Royal Christie NHS Foundation Trust 

Every year, around 30,000 breast cancer patients in the UK are offered radiotherapy after surgery. Though the treatment is considered effective, chances of heart problems later in life are likely.

"Although only a very small group of people are affected by a higher risk of heart problems later in life, it can still be a serious issue," Prof Charlotte Coles, professor of breast cancer clinical oncology at the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian.

Mostly this is because the breast tissue and the lymph nodes that need radiotherapy are close to the heart or because the patient has underlying heart issues.

Now, a pioneering NHS trial will test the benefits of proton beam therapy. This hi-tech treatment uses charged particles instead of X-rays to target tumors precisely for certain patients with breast cancer

The world-first trial will enroll 192 people

According to a release, the trial will compare proton beam therapy with standard radiotherapy for patients at a greater risk of long-term heart problems after radiotherapy treatment.

The trial will enroll 192 people across 22 sites in the UK. Patients allocated to receive proton beam therapy will be treated at either the Christie or University College London hospitals (UCLH).

"Radiotherapy for breast cancer is highly effective, but there is potential for proton beam therapy to reduce the likelihood of treatment-related heart problems that can occur in small groups of patients. We hope PBT will be able to offer more personalized treatment for patients in the future," Sairanne Wickers, Consultant Therapeutic Radiographer and Principal Investigator for Parable at UCLH, said in a statement.

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Three breast cancer patients have already undergone the hi-tech treatment

Previously, the NHS used proton beam therapy to treat patients with tumors in and around their brain or spinal cord.

Three breast cancer patients have already undergone the treatment as part of the world-first trial.

"There is untapped potential in proton beam therapy, potentially reducing the risks of side-effects following cancer treatment," Prof David Sebag-Montefiore, former chair of the National Cancer Research Institute’s clinical and translational radiotherapy research working group, told The Guardian.

Researchers hope proton beam therapy "will allow radiotherapy teams to deliver the required dose of radiotherapy where it’s needed while minimizing the dose of radiation delivered to the heart, and without increasing the risk of early side effects such as skin redness and changes in breast appearance".

An "early predictor" of heart problems

Kim Jones, a school caterer from Ely, is the third patient to undergo proton beam therapy for breast cancer as part of the trial on the NHS. She had chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy and lymph node removal and was later accepted to the Parable trial. Last month, she completed her proton beam therapy at the Christie hospital.

Jones described the treatment as "superb" and "very relaxing", The Guardian reported.

While proton beam therapy has been used in other countries to treat breast cancer, the numbers of participants in these trials are small, and there have been no reported trials that directly compare proton beam therapy with standard radiotherapy.

The current trial will measure radiation dose delivered to the heart as an "early predictor" of possible heart problems, avoiding the need for lengthy follow-up for many years before results are available.