Proton-beam therapy picks up steam as technology advances: WSJ

Belgium's IBA inked a deal with UZ Leuven hospital to install a proton-beam therapy center.--Courtesy of IBA

Proton-beam therapy was once considered too costly and controversial to treat cancer. But the method is starting to gain ground as more doctors and healthcare centers sign on to the technology's promise.

During the past 5 years, the total number of proton-beam therapy rooms worldwide has nearly doubled to 171. And deals for 66 new treatment rooms were signed in 2014 and 2015, compared to 17 during the previous two-year period, according to numbers cited by The Wall Street Journal.

Part of the uptake has to do with med tech innovation. Companies such as Belgium's Ion Beam Applications (IBA) and Varian Medical Systems ($VAR) are developing compact centers that cost less to install, the WSJ points out, which makes hospitals more likely to sign on to the technology.

"We couldn't have justified building a big proton-therapy center," Marc Decramer, head of Belgian hospital UZ Leuven, told the newspaper. The hospital decided to add a proton-beam therapy facility to become "part of the club," Decramer said. UZ Leuven inked the deal with IBA earlier this year.

"It's more than just prestige. We need to invest to make sure we remain ahead of others. It's also an opportunity to do research with this setup," Decramer said, as quoted by the WSJ.

Breakthroughs with the technology have also spurred adoption. Proton-beam therapy, which uses positively charged particles to kill tumor cells, was once considered too imprecise to be cost-effective.

But in 2012, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania uncovered pencil-beam scanning, a technique that programs protons to fill the 3-D shape of the tumor. Advocates for proton-beam therapy have argued that the technology would help save money in the long run, as it could reduce costs from treating side effects from traditional radiotherapy.

There's still uncharted territory with proton-beam therapy. Some doctors, while optimistic about the technology's promise, say that the treatment should be examined further and that it should be weighed against existing techniques. Right now, the treatment is mostly endorsed for treating childhood cancers and a few adult cases including tumors at the base of the skull.

Proton-beam therapy has "tremendous potential, but we still haven't finished our work to demonstrate what it can do," Justin Bekelman, a radiation oncology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, told the WSJ. "I can never imagine a world without proton therapy at this point, but I'm not convinced it's better for everything we do."

- read the WSJ story (sub. req.)