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What Is Proton Therapy?

Dec 27, 2023
proton therapy

Proton therapy is an advanced type of radiation treatment that uses protons (positively charged subatomic particles) instead of X-rays to kill cancer cells. A machine called a cyclotron painlessly delivers a high-energy proton beam through the skin from outside the body. A system of magnets, paired with a highly advanced computer mapping and computed tomography (CT) imaging system, allows control of the beam’s delivery with precision, matching the size and shape of the cancerous tissue. The protons stop when they reach their target, releasing most of their cancer-fighting energy right to the tumor.

The protons are sped up to about two-thirds the speed of light, or more than 100,000 miles per second. They target cancerous tissue with extreme precision, while minimizing exposure of nearby healthy tissues. This is particularly important in children and young adults whose tissues are still growing. Sparing healthy tissues minimizes side effects of the cancer treatment, helping patients maintain a higher quality of life.

What Is FLASH Therapy?

FLASH therapy is a new form of proton therapy that is available only in clinical trials. FLASH treatment delivers a high-energy proton beam to cancerous tissue at ultra-high dose rate in a single burst in under one second. Patients may only have to undergo one to three sessions.

In preclinical studies, both conventional proton therapy and FLASH reduced the number of needed treatment sessions with no known additional side effects. Traditional radiation therapy based on X-rays, or photons, is commonly delivered in multiple treatment sessions and typically requires six to eight weeks to complete. FLASH therapy could reduce what is typically 30 days of treatments into a single treatment—delivered in less than one second.

Which Conditions Can Proton Therapy Treat?

Proton therapy can also be used alone or in combination with other therapies to treat several localized cancers in children.

Today, proton therapy treatments for children are focused on brain and spine tumors to minimize exposure to normal tissue in these areas. In the future, it will also be used to treat patients with other solid tumors depending on the tumor location; proton therapy may be considered safer than conventional photon therapy when there are risks of exposing nearby normal organs like the liver or heart to radiation. Your radiation oncologist and other clinical team members will weigh the risks and benefits of proton therapy for each unique situation and condition.

What Is Proton Therapy Like?

Like other radiation treatments, a specialized nurse may administer medicine (anesthesia) to help your child relax and stay still during treatment. A proton therapy technician will precisely position your child so treatment can begin. Throughout the procedure, the technician will monitor your child using an audio-visual system just outside the room.

Treatments typically take just 15 to 30 minutes, and they are completely painless. Most children return to normal activities immediately afterwards.

If no anesthesia was given, the visit is finished! Your radiation oncologist will work with you to decide how many visits to the Proton Center are needed for your child’s treatment plan.

If anesthesia was provided, patients would wake and recover in the post-treatment rooms with staff members.

About Proton Therapy at Nationwide Children’s

The Proton Therapy Center is central Ohio’s first and only proton therapy treatment facility. This is a partnership between Nationwide Children’s and The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

The center offers state-of-the-art radiation oncology treatment for pediatric and adult patients at one location. It is located in the outpatient cancer center on Ohio State’s west campus. Patients will be able receive this specialized treatment closer to home. It also will lead to research, clinical trials, and academic partnerships that will continue to find new ways to improve cancer care.

Featured Expert

Timothy Cripe
Timothy Cripe, MD, PhD
Hematology, Oncology and BMT

Dr. Timothy P. Cripe is chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Dr. Cripe is also a member of the faculty at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

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Pediatric News You Can Use From America’s Largest Pediatric Hospital and Research Center

700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.