National Health Service patients could soon get access to a novel form of cancer treatment known as proton beam therapy in England for the first time, after the Department of Health invited bids from hospitals wishing to provide such services.

Proton beam therapy is a type of external radiotherapy that basically works by hitting the tumour with ionising protons which damage cell DNA and so cause cell death. A huge advantage from this type of treatment is that tumours can be destroyed without much damage to nearby healthy tissues and organs, as the beam of protons remains localised.

According to the DH, proton beam therapy can be more beneficial than conventional radiotherapy in the treatment of highly specific types of cancer in the neck, retina, base of the skull and near the spine, particularly in children, as it allows for better dose distribution and poses less risk to the surrounding normal tissues.

To date, patients seeking proton beam therapy have been forced to go abroad but will now be able to receive such treatment on home turf once services have been established. The DH plans to provide proton beam therapy for around 1,500 patients with a wider range of tumours in England each year, and expects services to be fully up and running in the next three-five years, it said.

“This is significant news for patients with rare cancers, especially children, as having Proton Beam Therapy will mean that they will receive a better quality of treatment and will not suffer from potential side effects such hearing loss and reduced IQ,” commented health minister Ann Keen.

Furthermore, she said the move is “also good news for scientists and academics who will ensure that the UK, with its current expertise, remains at the forefront of new technologies and science”.