Proton therapy: the little known scientific breakthrough that might save your life

Particle accelerators and antimatter sound like something either out of a science fiction movie or limited to a handful of upper echelon scientists. Most people would not consider it being something that has its place in the medical field, yet the fact of the matter is particle physics and health care can be mutually beneficial.

The use of a particle accelerator in the medical field has been stipulated since the 1940’s, and only has begun gaining traction as a result of recent technological innovations making it feasible on a smaller scale than that of CERN also known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Proton therapy, as it is so aptly named, involves the use of a particle accelerator to generate antimatter (antiprotons) that can be targeted at cancer cells and destroy them with minimal effects to the surrounding, and otherwise healthy, tissues.

The system involves the use of electromagnetic fields to propel particles at high speeds by way of in defined beams, thimage13[1]ese beams are then targeted at cancer cells. The beam is then targeted at the site of the tumor, and will then reach a specified depth depending on the amount of energy the particle accelerator can produce. Larger accelerators can go deeper into tissues, which is why newer proton therapy facilities sometimes span the size of two football fields. After the beam reaches the tumor, through a process of ionizing radiation, the nucleus of the cancerous cells are destroyed which consequently destroys the cell. Fragments from the cell are projected into adjacent cancer cells, which as a result, are also destroyed. The process can be likened to setting of a grenade inside of the tumor, the initial blast destroys most of the mass, while the shrapnel takes care of the rest.

Proton therapy is being bolstered as a new and surprisingly effective way of treating cancer. Health care professionals in the field of oncology have been slowly learning about the benefits proton therapy can have for people with recurrent or localized tumors. Where this process excels over existing therapies is that once the beam enters the body it stops at a certain depth depending on the energy level, whereas in x-ray treatments the radiation keeps going, destroying healthy tissue. Since this therapy is minimally invasive, it may be favored over surgically removing brain tumors.

Naturally, proton therapy is still in its infancy, and as such, facilities that provide this treatment are a pilgrimage for cancer patients. There are only 14 treatment facilities in the United States, and even less spread out in other countries across the globe. When demand is high, and the supply is limited, the costs go up, as the law of supply and demand suggests. The average cost of a proton therapy treatment course is around 100,000 dollars.

As this therapy is rarely covered by insurance companies, due to their claim that its long-term effects have not been studied enough, proton therapy remains only a treatment for the one percent, or those who are fortunate enough to have forward thinking insurance companies. In the summer of 2014 the proton beam center at the University of Indiana, said it was closing, citing falling insurance reimbursements. Steven Frank, the medical director of the proton therapy center at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston states, “The biggest struggle we’re coming up against is that the insurers don’t want to pay for it.”


Where does that leave others who could benefit from this treatment? It is widely known that there is a discrepancy between the level of health care people who occupy a higher tax bracket get over the average blue collar worker. Richer people are able to afford new and expensive treatments not covered by insurance. Yet the question remains: how long will it take insurers to acknowledge proton therapy as a means of treatment rather than a bunch of malarkey? The longer they wait, the more proton beam facilities close, and the less progress we make in the field. Thus, it is questionable whether or not insurance companies fail to support proton therapy when its benefits are clear. Proponents state that treatments should prove that they are equal or better than existing treatments, while numerous medical journals prove that not only is proton therapy more efficient, but safer.

Proton therapy is not for every cancer patient. In fact, Cancer Research UK states that only about one percent of the cases are eligible for proton therapy as it largely depends on the size and location of the tumor. Nevertheless, in those small percentage of cases, proton therapy has the potential to eradicate cancerous tissue at little cost. In recurrent cases, proton therapy might just be the little known scientific breakthrough that may save your life.

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