Why Not Here?

New research has found that proton-beam cancer treatment causes fewer side effects than conventional radiotherapy and is maybe as effective. Survival rates are similar and there is a lower impact on the heart and lungs. The findings, published in the Lancet, will be seen as vindication for the parents of Ashya King, who removed their five year old son from hospital in 2014, to have him treated abroad with proton therapy. Health officials in Southampton disputed that the treatment was better.

Brett and Naghemeh King were held in a Spanish jail after a police hunt before NHS chiefs agreed to pay for Ashya’s treatment at a Czech clinic. His parents said last year he was now free of cancer.

The study, led by Dr Torunn Yock of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, looked at 59 proton patients aged between 3 and 21, from 2003 to 2009. All had medulloblastoma, the most common malignant brain tumour in children and the one affecting Ashya. After 5 years, their survival rate was similar to patients given conventional X-ray radio therapy but there were fewer side effects.

Dr Yock told BBCRadio 5Live: ‘Proton therapy is as effective as photon therapy (conventional x-ray radio therapy).It’s maintaining this high rates of cure but doing so with less late toxicity, which has dramatic quality of life improvement.’

The therapy is able to target tumours directly, reducing the dose to surrounding tissue. It can treat spinal cord tumours, sarcomas near the brain, plus cancer of the prostate, lung and liver.

Professor Gillies McKenna, head of Oncology at the University of Oxford, said of the study: ‘No secondary cancers were seen… when we would have expected to see them in X-ray treated patients.’ But Dr Kieran Breen, from the Brain Tumour Research charity, said more work was needed. ‘In the longer term, we need to try and understand what effects it will have on people,’ he said.

Proton beam therapy is available in the UK only to treat eye cancers, but patients with other sorts of cancer can apply for NHS funding to have it abroad. It is rather curious that the NHS will fund it to patients for as long as it’s treated abroad. Without delving into reasons why this is not the case with other forms of cancer, it seems nonsensical not to have such treatment available in the UK.

We seem to refuse to move forward when others take the initiative while we hibernate needlessly for fear of change.

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