Thousands of cancer patients could benefit from ambitious plans to bring atom-smashing technology to hospitals across the UK.
A British medical company is working with scientists at Cern, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, to develop affordable proton beam therapy (PBT), based on the same technology which drives the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's biggest particle accelerator.
Unlike conventional radiotherapy that relies on high intensity X-rays, the treatment blasts tumours with protons, and it is said to be much more effective at targeting and destroying cancer and less destructive to surrounding tissue.
Two proton therapy facilities are already due to be launched at specialist NHS centres in London and Manchester in 2017, but they will only be able to take 1,500 patients a year and will focus on highly complex and difficult-to-treat cases.
The new proposal led by London company Advanced Oncotherapy PLC with the help of Cern scientists would see cheaper and more accessible PBT units established in 10 hospitals and clinics across the UK over five years and Dr Michael Sinclair, chief executive of Advanced Oncotherapy, hopes to open his first centre in 2016.
"Our intention is to make the treatment available both to the private sector and the NHS,” he says. "There are currently 320,000 new cancer patients diagnosed in Britain each year, and up to 15 per cent of those could benefit from this treatment.
"When the NHS facilities are opened, they will only be able to treat a small proportion of these cases. Our aim is to make this therapy available to the masses, which would be a massive step forward."
With each proton accelerator able to support three treatment rooms, the target is to help some 12,000 cancer patients a year and at around £26m each, the new Cern machines will be a third of the price of currently available equipment, said Dr Sinclair.
He adds: "This is a game-changer. PBT offers a significant improvement for patients with cancer over conventional radiotherapy. Everybody recognises the advantages of the technique, but so far the big problem has always been cost."
Experts estimate that a quarter of UK cancer patients who receive radiation treatment – around 40,000 per year – could benefit from PBT, which is especially useful for targeting tumours in vulnerable parts of the body such as the eye or the brain.
As well as assisting Dr Sinclair, scientists at Cern are engaged in a long-term project to improve proton beam treatment with cutting edge technology.
Dr Steve Myers, Cern's director of accelerators and technology, says: "We would like to create a machine that fits into a reasonable-sized room and could be installed in any teaching hospital.
"When treating deep tumours, collateral damage is more severe with normal radiotherapy. With protons you can shoot the beam in and control its energy so that you just hit the tumour. The pencil beam allows you to move left and right, and up and down, so it's a 3D treatment.
"Recovery time is much faster, survival rates are much better, and there are fewer side effects."
A proton beam therapy facility treating eye cancers in Zurich which had been operating for several years had a 99 per cent success rate, he says.