Article by Drew Turney at Autodesk Redshift
According to the US National Cancer Institute, nearly 40 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer during their lives. The World Health Organisation names cancer as the second leading cause of death globally, causing nearly one in six deaths. In case anyone needs reminding, cancer is a big deal.
Alongside chemotherapy and surgery to remove tumors, about 40 percent of cancer patients are treated with radiotherapy, which fires ionizing radiation into the body, killing malignant cells with X-ray photons. Roughly 17,000 clinics worldwide deliver X-ray radiotherapy treatment today.
Traditional radiotherapy can damage surrounding tissues because it ionizes the body along its entire path, leading to the potentially serious side effects associated with cancer treatment—which is even more fraught when the cancer is located near a critical organ. Enter the proton, the positively charged particle found in the nuclei of atoms. Proton beam radiotherapy for cancer treatment, which has been in use as far back as 1954, promises more precise control of where it delivers energy to kill cancer cells.
Clearly, proton therapy is a much better method, but it’s only available in approximately 65 facilities worldwide. What’s wrong with this picture?
Using a Wrecking Ball to Hammer a Nail
The scientists who started Advanced Oncotherapy asked themselves the same question. Headquartered in London—with 90 staff in the UK, Switzerland, and the United States—the company is taking proton beam therapy into the new age with its novel proton beam therapy (PBT) system, LIGHT.
Initial research on the system originated from a program at CERN in Geneva, and ADAM, an Advanced Oncotherapy subsidiary spun off from CERN, was instrumental in the early stages. In fact, 60 of Advanced Oncotherapy’s scientific staff are based in Geneva. According to David Navas, Advanced Oncotherapy’s vice president of investor and corporate relations, the initial CERN technology is still a major asset for the company. “Having a license on a CERN technology that builds on decades of CERN experience in accelerators is enormously advantageous to ADAM and Advanced Oncotherapy,” he says.
Advanced Oncotherapy is on target to treat its first patient in 2020. Still, if this technology has been around since the 1950s, why is there development to be done? Quite simply, proton therapy costs too much, and it’s too technically inaccessible. “Current systems are based on cyclotrons or synchrotrons,” Navas says. “They have drawbacks inherent to the design of the accelerating system itself.”
Those systems can be large and heavy and must be manufactured and installed under very controlled (read: expensive) conditions. This can mean systems with the footprint of a sports field, impossible for most hospitals; although smaller accelerators exist, they suffer from the same inherent issues that all cyclotrons and synchrotrons do, such as slow beam-energy modulation that’s problematic for accurate targeting. Requiring a dedicated building plus accelerator equipment, which alone can cost upward of $100 million for multitreatment-room systems, it’s out of reach for most health-care bodies.
Advanced Oncotherapy Quality Manager Neil Barker recalls hearing of a synchrotron installation that required putting the machine in place and completing the building around it. “They couldn’t get an 800-ton crane, so they had to install it using two 500-ton cranes,” he says.
But Advanced Oncotherapy’s system is broken down into constituent parts—modules—and streamlined. An everyday bed lift could move all components, transporting them to the assembly point inside a clinic or specially adapted building, Barker says. That’s because the company is developing a linear accelerator rather than the traditional round shape. The world’s only linear accelerator for PBT, LIGHT offers several advantages over circular accelerators: It can take up less space; does not require expensive, complex cryogenic cooling; demands less shielding because stray radiation is reduced; and offers the ability to change energy levels rapidly on a pulse-by-pulse basis.
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