A pioneering cancer treatment hailed by parents as a life-saver had been found to cause fewer side effects in children than conventional radiotherapy.

According to new research, published in The Lancet Oncology, proton beam therapy is as effective as other treatments on certain types of cancer, but has fewer “toxic” side effects.

The study looked at 59 patients aged between three and 21. After five years it was discovered that their survival rates were similar to those of patients who had received conventional treatment, but the effects on the heart and lungs were less severe.

What is proton beam therapy?

While conventional radiotherapy uses powerful beams of radiation to successfully destroy cancerous cells, the surrounding healthy tissue can also be damaged. This produces side effects such as nausea or can even disrupt other organs in the body.

In proton beam therapy, the beams of radiation stops once they make contact with cancer cells, causing significantly less damage to the surrounding tissue.

This means that proton beam therapy can be advantageous when treating cancer in areas that would otherwise create a risk of serious long-term harm, such as around the brain or eye.

Saving Ashya King

Proton beam therapy made headlines last August when the parents of Ashya King took the six-year-old away from Southampton Hospital to seek alternative treatment.

Medical staff alerted police, initiating a world-wide manhunt for the family until they were detained in Spain on suspicion of neglect, although they were later released without charge.

Ashya went on to receive NHS-funded proton beam therapy in Prague and his family claim that the treatment saved his life.

His father, Brett, told the Mirror a month later: “We could have been visiting our son’s grave next week, but instead we’ll be taking him for his first day at school.”

A year earlier in 2014, a toddler from Nottinghamshire was flown to the US to undergo proton beam therapy after a cancerous lump was found under her eye when she was just 11 months old.

proton beam therapy

The NHS paid £100,000 to send Bethany Topley to Oklahoma to receive the treatment after doctors told her parents that the only options in the UK would involve removing her eye, cheek and half of her nose, or else using radiotherapy, which would halt her bone growth.

New UK treatment centres

Only one proton beam facility is currently in operation in the UK. This is at the Clatterbridge Centre for Cancer NHS Foundation Trust in the Wirral, Merseyside, which is used to treat rare cancers around the eye.

A further treatment centre is due to open in Cardiff this year, with two more scheduled to open in Northumberland and London the following year.