Proton beam therapy: Can CERN's tech cure cancer?

Advanced Oncotherapy is to bring its CERN spin-off technology to London, but what is proton beam therapy and how does it work?
Graphic representing proton beams colliding as used by the CERN hadron collider
The machinery is licensed from CERN, the organisation behind the Hadron Collider

Advanced Oncotherapy PLC (LON:AVO) secured a £24mln financing facility from a private equity firm to support the installation of its first LIGHT proton therapy machine in Harley Street, bringing the cutting edge cancer treatment to London.

LIGHT, which stands for Linac Image Guided Hadron Technology, is cheaper and smaller than the current units, which are almost prohibitively expensive.

The LIGHT system has the ability to propel protons at the speeds generated by much larger machines.

“Given the size of our company and the complexity of our LIGHT system, our priority is to leverage the incredible scientific and technological know-how gathered over many years at ADAM, a CERN spin off, and the pool of talented people which we have assembled," said Nicolas Serandour chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Advanced Oncotherapy.

The proton accelerator used by Advanced Oncotherapy was licensed from CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, which is currently hunting the "God particle".

The go-to treatment

Proton beam therapy is expected to emerge as the go-to treatment for tumours as the price of the technology comes down. It uses protons to pinpoint tumours more precisely, limiting the damage caused to surrounding tissue.

It is most often used to treat brain tumours in young children whose brains are still developing or cancers near a particularly delicate or sensitive part of the body.

Proton-beam therapy made headlines in the UK back in 2014 when six-year-old Ashya King was taken to Prague by his parents for treatment of an otherwise incurable brain tumour, medulloblastoma.

His parents refused to let him undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy in the UK and fled to the continent for proton therapy. The treatment was not available on the NHS and still considered an experimental treatment. They were arrested in Spain and spent three days in prison before being released following public outcry.

The therapy is not recommended for use in most cancer cases, in fact Cancer Research UK estimates that only 1% of all cancer sufferers would be suitable for proton beam therapy.

Unlike current radiotherapies, proton therapy uses a particle accelerator to direct a much narrower beam of radiation at the cancer.

Due to their high rates of division, cancer cells are particularly vulnerable to this type of therapy as it actively destroys DNA.

Harley Street

Advanced Oncotherapy’s clinic in Harley Street, which is due to start treating patients by 2018, will bring this breakthrough therapy to London, slashing costs.

“Proton beam therapy is by far the most precise and produces far fewer side effects and collateral damage, such as the problem of residual tumours you often find with other treatments,” said Dr Michael Sinclair, chief executive of London-listed Advanced Oncotherapy.

However, there are fewer than 160 proton beam facilities worldwide, compared to the 18,000 x-ray based treatment centres globally. The reason for that is cost.

Currently machinery is enormous and costly to house and operate, requiring a lot of energy.

The cost of just one room in current facilities is estimated at around US$25-$30mln.

The NHS is building two proton beam centres, one In London and one in Manchester, which are expected to open in 2018.

There is an existing low energy proton machine used specifically to treat some eye cancers at an NHS centre in Merseyside. But it cannot be used to treat brain tumours as the low energy beam does not penetrate far enough into the tissue.

Bringing costs down

The primary focus of research in this area is to bring costs down by developing the second generation of proton therapy.

“Using linked linear accelerators, a similar process to the hadron collider, harnessing work done in association with CERN, our tech is designed to address the cost parameters of this type of treatment,” said Sinclair of .

“The new and disruptive technology we are developing costs a fraction to operate and house, and uses significantly less energy.

“We see immense potential for proton therapy for the future of cancer treatment and we aim to address the cost parameters.”

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