It is just 12 months to the first patient treatment at the UK’s first NHS high energy proton beam therapy centre at The Christie in Manchester.

Proton beam therapy (PBT) has been offered overseas to NHS patients who are eligible for treatment in England since 2008 in a programme that has to date supported approximately 1,000 patients. However, for many cancer patients, travelling abroad is inappropriate as they may be too unwell or require other treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy. The trip abroad can also result in families being separated during a very stressful time.

Together with the Department of Health, NHS England is funding the development of two world class centres in Manchester and London for NHS patients to be treated in the UK.

The Christie proton beam therapy centre will treat its first patient in August 2018 with University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) following in summer 2020. Each centre will treat up to 750 patients a year.

Proton beam therapy is a specialist form of radiotherapy that targets certain cancers very precisely, increasing success rates and reducing side-effects. It targets tumours with less damage to surrounding healthy tissue and is particularly appropriate for certain cancers in children who are at risk of lasting damage to organs that are still growing.

Amelia Brome, 10, from Preston, Lancashire is back at school this term for the first time since January, having undergone 10 weeks of PBT in the USA for a tumour affecting her brain and nasal cavity. She and mother Cheryl, a hairdresser, initially had to fly out to Florida alone, as father Michael who is a production supervisor for a milk bottling plant, had difficulty obtaining a visa and had to follow on a week later.

Michael Brome says: “The treatment we had in the USA was brilliant and the staff were great, but lovely as it was, you are 8,000 miles away from home and your support networks. It’s a massive upheaval for the whole family and not everyone is as lucky with their employers as Cheryl and I are. It would all have been so much easier if Amelia had been able to have her treatment in Manchester, and we are so glad knowing that proton beam therapy is coming to The Christie next year.”

The Christie PBT centre will be a state of the art four storey building with three treatment units, imaging equipment, treatment planning facilities and patient support services.

Christie consultant and senior responsible officer for proton beam therapy, Nick Slevin says: “To be just 12 months away from offering high energy proton beam therapy to patients in the UK for the very first time is very exciting. It will bring this treatment closer to patients who currently have to travel abroad. For a specific range of cancers, the advantages of proton beam therapy over conventional radiotherapy are unquestionable. Proton beam therapy can very precisely target the cancer. This means that normal tissues receive very little radiation, so there are both fewer side-effects, and – as the dose to the cancer can be increased – a better chance of cure.”

A patient’s treatment course is approximately six weeks long with individual treatment sessions of 30 minutes for five days a week. Much of the 30 minute treatment session is spent positioning the patient properly and adjusting the equipment in the treatment room, with just two to three minutes of that being when the beam targets the tumour.

While The Christie and UCLH centres are being built, all clinically eligible NHS patients will continue to be funded to travel overseas for treatment with NHS England’s established partner centres in America and Switzerland. To ensure a consistency of service, once the two UK PBT centres are operational, patients will continue to be sent abroad for treatment until both centres have fully developed their capacity.

The Christie PBT will include a dedicated research room (funded by The Christie charity) to investigate how PBT can be delivered more precisely and effectively, meaning better treatments for patients and fewer side effects. A team of world leading research scientists, engineers and clinicians will work together to look at how protons interact with different tissues, where exactly they deposit their dose and how precisely they cause biological damage to the tumours.

Over the last century, The Christie radiotherapy department has pioneered many advances in radiotherapy. It already leads in advanced radiotherapy, delivering more complex treatments than any other centre in the country. The introduction of proton beam therapy will allow it to continue to make advances in this area and improve patient treatment and care.

As well as welcoming PBT to The Christie next year, the hospital is also just one of seven sites in the world to host a pioneering MR-linac radiotherapy machine. It combines magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning and tumour- busting radiotherapy treatment in one hi-tech package. The machine, which will start treating patients next year will precisely locate tumours, tailor the shape of the x-ray beams in real time, and lock on to the tumour during treatment – even when tumour tissue is moving during treatment e.g. in the lung as a patient breathes.

The discovery of the proton was the most famous work of the renowned scientist Ernest Rutherford at the Victoria University of Manchester. Rutherford is credited with discovering and naming the proton in the first experiments to split the atom between 1909 and 1917.

 

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