Is proton therapy better than traditional radiation for cancer treatment?

Proton therapy is ideal for tumors that are oddly shaped and/or situated in areas that can't handle much radiation exposure.

Most people who are diagnosed with cancer face a pretty fearsome treatment plan that can include surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation. Some will have to undergo all three. The lucky ones may only have to go through radiation treatment, which requires no cutting and probably won't have them throwing up every hour or so for a week. But even then, they're not that lucky. Traditional radiation treatment using X-ray beams has its downsides, especially for children and for people with awkwardly placed tumors.

Radiation therapy for cancer is based on the idea of selective cell destruction, and it destroys cells using energy. High-energy particles damage a cell by altering its atoms.


Everything in the body is made up of atoms. Two or more atoms together create a molecule, and molecules are the working components of cells. The function and health of a molecule depends entirely on the composition of its atoms.

When high-energy particles enter the body and run into atoms, they basically cause the atom's electrons to become so excited (energized) that they bounce out of their orbits, creating an atom that is ionized, or charged. A charged atom is very different from a non-charged atom, and this change causes damage to the molecule. The molecule can't work the way its supposed to if its atoms are altered. Enzymes in the cell rush to repair this molecular damage, but cancer cells are slower than healthy cells to create these enzymes. The end result is that more cancer cells than healthy cells end up dying from the radiation exposure.See the next page to learn how proton beam therapy can reduce radiation exposure.


Proton Beam Therapy vs. X-ray Beams

The X-ray beam releases its highest radiation dose before it reaches the tumor and continues to release energy as it leaves the body (left); the proton beam releases its highest radiation dose in the tumor itself and releases almost no energy afterward.
Image courtesy Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

The problem with X-rays as an energy source is that they're not easy to control. They have a low mass and a high energy, making it difficult to direct exactly where and how they interact with body tissue. Most body tissue doesn't absorb or block X-rays, so they just keep moving right through the body, releasing energy. When an X-ray enters the body, it emits a tremendous amount of energy at the point of entrance. That's why X-ray treatment leaves people with a tan at the treatment site -- their skin is receiving a lot of radiation. As the X-ray continues into the body, it continues to release energy. As long as the cancer tumor is somewhere in the path of the X-ray, it receives some of that radiation. But so does the healthy tissue all around it. The tissue damage that results from this type of radiation therapy can cause serious problems for the patient if the tumor is in a particularly sensitive area like the brain, the eye, the lungs, spinal cord or liver. It can cause irreparable organ damage. And for children, any tissue damage can be detrimental to their development. In order to limit the extent of collateral tissue damage, oncologists will bombard the tumor area with the lowest level of effective radiation.

Proton-beam therapy can avoid this type of collateral damage. Protons are positively charged atomic particles, and they have tremendous energy but also tremendous mass. They're easier to control than X-rays: They slow down as they encounter body tissue. Protons can actually be set to release their energy at a specific point in body.


Proton beams don't emit energy in a constant stream. They typically release it in increasing amounts as they start to slow down, because the slower they move the more atoms they have time to hit. And when they stop moving, they release most of their energy in one giant burst of radiation. After that burst, there's very little energy left, and they just stop. There's no "exit dose" of radiation like there is in X-ray therapy.

By altering the proton beam's energy level, which determines its velocity, doctors can send it to a very particular tissue depth. At that exact depth -- at the precise location of the tumor -- the protons release their energy. There's very little radiation damage to the tissue surrounding the tumor. By arranging various proton beams of different energies on a three-dimensional plane, doctors can create a burst of radiation that exactly matches the shape and location of the tumor. Proton therapy is ideal for tumors that are oddly shaped and/or situated in areas that can't handle much radiation exposure. With protons as the energy source, doctors can bombard the tumor with much more energy than they can using X-rays, because they don't have to adhere to the lowest common denominator approach in which the amount of radiation directed at the tumor has to be low enough for the surrounding tissue to survive the treatment. This means proton therapy can destroy a tumor in fewer sessions than are required in X-ray therapy.


Proton Therapy Centers and Cost

Proton therapy equipment is very expensive.
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

Proton treatment is not widely available. Most people who have received this type of radiation therapy since its introduction in the 1950s have been treated in research centers. The equipment required for proton-beam treatment is massive and expensive. Particle accelerators don't come cheap. A synchrotron, the machine that speeds up the protons before they enter the body, typically requires its own building and costs about $100 million. And the treatment itself can cost up to three times more than conventional radiation therapy. (It's considered a mainstream cancer treatment, though, so most insurance companies cover it.)

Currently, there are proton-therapy centers in several countries including Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, but only one of those centers is located in a hospital. The others are all specialized treatment centers that only do proton therapy, and they have to pick and choose among prospective patients based on need. In general, children are top candidates, because X-ray radiation treatment can be so damaging to a body that's still growing; and children and adults with inoperable tumors in the brain or on the spinal cord are good candidates. More and more proton-therapy centers are springing up, though -- the United States is up to five as of March 2007. Most experts predict that as the technology continues to advance, costs and equipment size will decrease, making it easier for hospitals to start using the treatment on a much larger scale.


For more information on proton-beam therapy and related topics, check out the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Jones, Bleddyn. "Particle physics on the cancer ward." BBC News. Mar. 6, 2007.
  • The National Association for Proton Therapy
  • "Principles of Proton Beam Therapy." Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. /radiation/proton/principles.asp
  • "Radiation Therapy: New Rays Of Hope." BusinessWeek Online. February 12, 2007. chan=technology_technology+index+page_best+of+the+magazine
  • "What is Proton Beam Therapy?" Optivus.