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Proton Therapy: A Year in Review

proton therapy reviewThis year has been unlike any other. It has posed unique challenges that have caused us to reevaluate healthcare as we know it. The developments in healthcare are not limited to the treatment and prevention of the novel Coronavirus. Healthcare as a whole is being re-imagined to improve the quality of care for patients. These innovations have also greatly expanded the accessibility and technology of proton therapy across the nation.

Expansion of Proton Therapy

Access to proton therapy has greatly expanded for patients because of new centers opening around the nation. Sylvester Cancer Center opened the Dwoskin Proton Therapy Center in Miami. In Arkansas, Children’s Baptist Health signed an agreement to open a center, which will be the first and only proton therapy center in that state. On the east coast, Inova Schar Cancer Institute, located in Northern Virginia, treated its first patient using proton therapy. Access to proton therapy in our southern states has also increased with the opening of Proton International at UAB, the first proton center in Alabama.

Improved Technology

With huge scientific achievements in healthcare this year, like the Covid-19 vaccine, we also saw incredible innovations in proton therapy treatment. One of these innovations was the first patient treated with Flash radiation therapy.  Flash radiation therapy is when a proton therapy system enables ultra-high doses in less than a second. This greatly reduces the time needed for treatment and decreases the side-effects of radiotherapy. Ultra-high doses are feasible only for proton therapy and not traditional radiation treatment. This is due to the special property of a proton, called the Bragg-Peak, which allows energy to be delivered to one spot in the body. Traditional radiation therapy uses photons to irradiate cancer cells. Photon’s deposit energy throughout the body so high doses would be incredibly dangerous to healthy tissues.

The first Carbon-Ion Therapy Center is being built on the campus of Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. This will be the country’s first center of this kind. Similar to proton therapy, Carbon-Ion therapy damages the DNA of cancer cells without causing harm to nearby healthy tissues; however, it is able to kill cancerous cells that were resistant to other forms of radiotherapy. Carbon-Ion can irradiate more efficiently than protons because they are heavier, so they can deliver more energy to the cancerous cells. Even with this extra energy over protons, they are equally as safe to surrounding tissues because they are charged particles, meaning they also exhibit the Bragg-Peak property.

Proton Therapy and Coronavirus

Proton Therapy has not only been proven to be an effective way to irradiate cancer, it has also been able to expose potential coronavirus cases. During a lung scan at a proton center, therapists and radiation physicists saw a significant change over a short period. They submitted this patient, who didn’t experience any symptoms, for a COVID-19 test and found out that he was positive for the virus. Other centers started experiencing the same event, patients without any external symptoms showing vastly different lung scans during a couple of days caused by an asymptomatic case of coronavirus. Now researchers are starting to develop clinical trials based on this phenomenon to study asymptotic health risks and spread.

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