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Several million people in the world are affected by cancer and there are various treatments available. Some patients undergo sessions of proton therapy, an advanced form of radiotherapy that uses a high-energy proton beam.
In a lab near Brussels, in Belgium, IBA (Ion Beam Applications) is building and testing cyclotrons. Inside the cyclotron, charged particles are accelerated until they almost reach the speed of light. Electrons are separated from hydrogen atoms and only the protons are kept.
Inside the orange magnets a special pipeline is installed to make the protons travel towards the nearby treatment rooms, before they enter the patients’ bodies, and destroy their tumours.
While conventional radiation can damage healthy tissues, proton beams deliver their maximum energy within a precisely controlled range, thereby reducing adverse effects to adjacent healthy tissues. The first prototype particle accelerator for medical purposes was invented in 1986, and the latest generation of cyclotrons, are much smaller and cheaper than previous ones.
Yyves Jongen, the inventor. explained: “Cancer often affects older people. But around 7% of cancers are found in children. And when we’re treating cancer in children it’s even more important not to irradiate other organs which the child will need throughout life. And proton therapy allows us to do that. When we have the patient here on the treatment table we use two x-rays to locate the exact position of the tumour in the patient. And we can position the patient to the nearest millimetre so that we really target that and nothing just beside it.”
Proton therapy is therefore particularly useful when treating tumours which are close to vital organs: for example cancers in the eyes, brain, neck or left breast. The strength of the beam can also be regulated.
The inventor of this proton therapy is now in line for a Lifetime Achievement at the European Inventor Awards, organised by the European Patent office. The winners will be announced on 28th May in Amsterdam.
Yyves Jongen said: “I get paid for doing things I love in life. I am passionate about combating cancer and designing machines which can treat it better. So I’m a very happy man.”
To make this therapy more widely available, the next step is to reduce the size and cost of the machines.