Cyclotron arrives at UCLH, London

90-tonne cyclotron installed at UCLH to treat cancer patients

Image credit: David Parry/PA Wire

A cyclotron has been lowered into a vault in University College London Hospital (ULCH), the Press Association reports. This equipment will produce the high-energy beams required to treat cancer patients with proton beam therapy (PBT)

The new facilities will be used by hundreds of patients every year.

The cyclotron – which is the size of a large family car – was lowered into place with a crane yesterday evening. It was constructed in Germany and sent to the UK via the Netherlands. Constructing a vault for the cyclotron required the excavation of 80,000 cubic metres of earth, as five of the building’s 11 storeys are hidden underground.

Staff at UCLH voted to name the cyclotron Lise, after renowned 20th-century nuclear physicist Lise Meitner, who was best known for her leading role in the discovery of nuclear fission (the process on which nuclear power plants rely).

PBT is a type of therapy, mostly for cancer patients, using charged (ionised) particles rather than high-energy electromagnetic radiation to damage the DNA of cancerous cells; this destroys them or prevents them from multiplying further.

The beam of high-energy particles is produced by cooling the environment to near absolute zero. Protons (positively charged particles found in the nuclei of atoms) are accelerated around the cyclotron to two-thirds the speed of light, and extremely powerful magnets guide a beam of these high-energy particles towards the patient. This allows for millimetre precision during treatment.

The major advantage over conventional radiotherapy – which uses beams of X-rays – is the millimetre precision with which the beams can be directed at the tumour. With very little scattering, this results in minimal damage to healthy tissue and reduced side effects such as reduced fertility or impeded development in children. However, a 2003 analysis estimated that PBT is 2.4 times more expensive than conventional radiotherapy and there is not yet extensive evidence to show that PBT is a categorically more effective cancer treatment.

UCLH is due to begin providing PBT in 2020, while The Christie in Manchester – which had its cyclotron (‘Emmeline’) installed almost exactly a year ago – will begin treating NHS patients later this year. The installation of PBT facilities at these two hospitals has cost £250m, and will mean that NHS patients no longer have to be sent abroad to receive PBT: more than 1200 NHS patients have travelled to other countries to receive PBT in the past decade.

Marcel Levi, chief executive of UCLH, commented: “With the NHS turning 70 this year, it is absolutely fantastic to be investing in world-leading treatments and facilities.

“When the PBT centre opens, more adults, young people and children will be able to access this treatment, ensuring better recovery and fewer side effects than possible with other treatments.”

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