Proton therapy has the ability to deliver high doses of radiation just to a tumour site with very little radiation being absorbed in healthy tissue. It is particularly useful in treating cancer in children and tumours that are close to the body’s vital structures such as in the head or near the spinal cord. The UK government has recently authorised the building of two new proton therapy centres.
The new three-year research project, called Pravda, will employ the unique imaging sensors developed in the University of Lincoln, along with detectors developed by the University of Liverpool and used in the Large Hadron Collider in the recent successful detection of the Higgs Boson.
Pravda will provide not only accurate measurements of the therapy dose but also 3D images of where the radiation is absorbed at a tumour site. Treatments will be more effective and shorter, and may open up the ability to treat some common cancers that so far have resisted treatment with conventional therapy.
Nigel Allinson, Distinguished Professor of Image Engineering at the University of Lincoln, explained: “Radiotherapy is a fundamental weapon in the battle against cancer with some 50 per cent of patients receiving it as part of their treatment.
“Proton therapy is widely used in the USA and with two new Government supported centres becoming available in the UK, our work is not only timely but, hopefully, will have a major effect on the quality of life for many thousands of cancer patients. Being able to image exactly how the radiation interacts with a tumour, in 3D, is considered the holy-grail of radiotherapy.”
To meet this challenge, Prof. Allinson has assembled a team of instrumentation scientists, medical physicists and oncologists from across the world, including the Universities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Surrey, the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, and the iThemba Laboratories (Cape Town, South Africa).
They will be developing first-of-their-kind proton detectors that provide accurate information about the proton beam’s dose, energy and profile during treatment. The new detectors will also record individual proton tracks to allow full 3D images of the proton interactions with the tumour.
The project follows on from Prof. Allinson’s work in creating the world’s largest silicon chip designed for medical imaging.
He added: “We are very grateful to the Wellcome Trust for enabling this crucial piece of work to move forward, and once we have demonstrated the capabilities of our approach, as well as the subsequent medical trials, it will provide better outcomes for individual patients and extend the capabilities of proton therapy.”
Ted Bianco, Director of Technology Transfer at the Wellcome Trust, said: “The Pravda project is a perfect example of how advances in the physical sciences can contribute to the search for solutions in healthcare. The technology holds much promise for improving treatment for cancer patients and we are pleased to support its development.”
Currently about 100 NHS patients have to travel abroad for proton therapy, but it is hoped 1,500 patients could be treated in the UK by 2015 with the new government-approved centres becoming operational. There are around 40 proton therapy treatment centres around the world at present with another 30 in construction.