How Proton Therapy Attacks Cancer


Tucked in a corner of the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital campus is the country’s 28th proton therapy center, which is set to begin treating patients this month. It is a small but state-of-the-art system designed to attack tumors more quickly than its predecessors in proton therapy, a precise type of radiation treatment that spares healthy tissue.


Twenty-four more centers are under construction or in development, including one at D.C.’s Sibley Memorial Hospital that is scheduled to open in late 2019 and one at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Fairfax that is scheduled to open by 2020.


How it works

All types of radiation treatments break the DNA in cells, which makes it harder for them to multiply. Rapidly dividing cancer cells are particularly susceptible to this kind of damage, so tumors often shrink or disappear.


The difference between traditional radiation and proton therapy is in how the radiation is delivered. Traditional therapy irradiates tumors with X-ray waves, which are beams of photons, and all tissue along the beams’ paths get a similar dose of radiation.


Proton therapy uses beams of protons, charged subatomic particles that can be controlled with magnets. A small amount of radiation is deposited on the way into the body, most goes directly into the tumor and none passes through the other side. That means, for instance, that radiation aimed at a tumor in one side of the brain wouldn’t harm the healthy side. And a beam aimed at a spinal tumor wouldn’t reach the heart or lungs behind it.


“You can deliver a high dose to where you need it and spare normal tissues with fewer side effects,” said Anatoly Dritschilo, chairman of radiation oncology at Georgetown.


Because more radiation reaches the tumor, a smaller overall dose is required.



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