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New research has shown some promising results in killing cancer…in milliseconds!

Scientists have successfully used proton radiotherapy, which utilizes protons to administer radiation directly to cancer cells while protecting healthy tissue, in mice models. This is incredible news in cancer research because over half the patients with cancer diagnoses receive radiation therapy. 

Radiation therapy works by damaging the DNA of cancer which either kills them or slows down their progression. Unfortunately, it’s a slow process that sometimes can take weeks of treatments to kill or damage enough of the cancer cells. In order for this type of treatment to be most effective, the cancer cells need to be growing and dividing into new cells. That’s why radiation therapy is usually spread out over a lengthy period — so that the radiation can target growing cancer cells. The radiation has to be administered in very small, daily doses in order to protect healthy cells and tissues and give them more time to repair themselves after treatment.

But with this new research into proton radiotherapy, they found that there might be a better way to protect healthy tissue and administer radiation at lightning speed. The new technique is called FLASH, or ultra-high dose rate radiotherapy which uses electrons to target tumors while minimizing healthy tissue damage. It reportedly does so in less than a second — more like milliseconds — which could significantly reduce the length and intensity of radiation sessions.

Dr. James M. Metz, director of the Roberts Proton Therapy Center and Chair of Radiation Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia who is the co-senior and corresponding author of the new study, writes in the paper that previous research has suggested that FLASH therapy kills off cancer cells while preserving normal tissue in brain, lung, bowel, and skin cancers.

The researchers behind the present study hypothesized that using protons instead of electrons in FLASH therapy would make it possible to deliver a higher dose of radiation while keeping its protective effects. They also consider proton therapy to be safer and more effective than electron therapy due to previous studies in mice which, in fact, showed that increasing the radiation rate of electron radiotherapy can protect against cognitive decline during brain irradiation. 

Dr. Metz explains, “We’ve been able to develop specialized systems in the research room to generate FLASH doses, demonstrate that we can control the proton beam, and perform a large number of experiments to help us understand the implications of FLASH radiation that we simply could not have done with a more traditional research setup.”

It seems as though this may be the massive breakthrough in cancer treatment the world has been waiting for. Still, oncology patients will have to wait a little longer because there have been no clinical trials in humans yet. Unofficially, one man has received the experimental treatment, as reported by researchers in the October 2019 journal Radiotherapy and Oncology.

The newest study appears in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, and Physics. You can read more about it here.