As cancer is one of the leading global health issues, finding new treatments for the disease is a topic of great international interest. A new approach using charged particles (protons or carbon ions) delivered to a tumour has the potential to offer improved control over tumour growth and requires lower doses of radiation during cancer treatment. This promising development has gained the interest of many countries over the years, with 50 particle radiotherapy facilities already in operation and 26 more underway.
At a side event on Particle Radiotherapy for Cancer: Biology and Technology held at the IAEA on 25 September 2014 during the IAEA 58th General Conference, delegates of the Conference had an opportunity to learn about these treatment options. The event featured presentations about the unique characteristics of the beams used in particle therapy and also addressed current results in patient treatments and clinical trials. The presenters also discussed the challenges and costs in implementing the use of this therapy.
"The search has been to find a balance between radiation doses delivered to a malignant tumour and protecting healthy tissue and organs from damage," said Eduardo Rosenblatt, Head of the IAEA Applied Radiation Biology and Radiotherapy Section. He highlighted that radiotherapy delivered through protons and carbon ions offer potential avenues for striking such a balance.
Proton radiotherapy can be used to strictly target tumours while leaving the surrounding healthy tissue and organs unaffected, explained Piero Fossati from the Italian National Centre of Oncological Hadrontherapy (CNAO). "This allows us to reduce the toxicity associated with radiation and can improve the results of treatment," he said. "But not all people agree that this is the most useful tool." He cited concerns related to costs and whether the technique is more effective than others, noting that "this technique is not the cure for cancer, but it is an improvement."
Similar concerns about cost and effectiveness were raised in a presentation on carbon ion radiotherapy by Reiko Imai from the Japan National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS). She explained that carbon ion radiotherapy facilities and treatments are expensive, but developments in technology are helping to reduce those costs. Utilizing networks of facilities in areas around the world is also an avenue for lowering costs while increasing access to treatment for patients.
Ms Imai's presentation also demonstrated how carbon ion radiotherapy may not be suitable for treating all forms of cancer, but "it offers treatment solutions for some harder to treat cancers," and in some cases, for cancers considered otherwise impossible to treat.
A lively question and answer session between the participants and presenters followed the presentations. The topics raised included toxicity levels associated with these treatment options, estimated patient costs, as well as the rate of developing secondary cancer after using these treatments.
This side event was a precursor to a larger event that will be held from 11 to 14 November 2014 to further explore this topic. The November meeting will be held at the IAEA Headquarters and aims to bring together experts for more in-depth discussions on state-of-the-art developments in the field of particle therapy, as well as on current progress and gaps in clinical research, information, commissioning of facilities and costs. The meeting conclusions will be compiled in a technical report that will be shared with all IAEA Member States.
Through events like these, the IAEA fosters knowledge exchanges and facilitates the use of nuclear techniques. These gatherings also aim to support IAEA Member States in furthering their capacities to safely and securely use nuclear tools. Supporting progress and development in the field of particle radiotherapy is one of the many avenues through which the IAEA works to fulfil its mandate of contributing nuclear technology to peace, health and prosperity worldwide.