SAN DIEGO, CA­—New research has found that patients with esophageal cancer who are treated with proton therapy experienced significantly less toxic side effects than patients treated with older radiation therapies. This study was presented at the 54th Annual Conference of the Particle Therapy Co-Operative Group (PTCOG).

This study compared two kinds of x-ray radiation with proton therapy. Proton therapy is an innovative, precise approach that targets tumors while minimizing harm to surrounding tissues.

The researchers looked at nearly 600 patients and found that proton therapy resulted in a significantly lower number of side effects, including nausea, blood abnormalities, and loss of appetite. For this research, Michael Chuong, MD, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in Baltimore, worked with colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Dallas, Texas.

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“This evidence underscores the precision of proton therapy, and how it can really make a difference in cancer patients’ lives,” said Chuong.

Patients with esophageal cancer can suffer a range of side effects, including nausea, fatigue, lack of appetite, blood abnormalities, and lung and heart problems. Proton therapy did not make a difference in all of these side effects, but had significant effects on several.

The results have particular relevance for the University of Maryland School of Medicine; this fall the school will open the Maryland Proton Treatment Center (MPTC). The center will provide one of the newest and highly precise forms of radiation therapy available, pencil beam scanning (PBS), which targets tumors while significantly decreasing radiation doses to healthy tissue. This technique can precisely direct radiation to the most difficult-to-reach tumors.

Proton therapy is just one of several new methods for treating cancer. Others include selective internal radiation therapy, which is a precision modality for treating patients with particularly difficult-to-remove tumors involving the liver such as those from colorectal cancers; gammapod, which is a new, high-precision, noninvasive method of treating early-stage breast cancer; and thermal therapies, which is the use of heat in treating a broad spectrum of malignancies.

The treatment works well for many kinds of tumors, including those found in the brain, esophagus, lung, head and neck, prostate, liver, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal system. It is also an important option for children with cancer and is expected to become an important option for some types of breast cancer. While most cancer patients are well served with today’s state-of-the-art radiation therapy technology, up to 30% are expected to have a greater benefit from the new form of targeted proton beam therapy.