Radiation has several very important uses. Radiolabeling allows us to track the path of certain drugs in the body (most commonly with tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen), thereby playing a key role in drug development; foodstuffs are irradiated to eliminate any bacteria or viruses that may be present; and x-rays are used in computerized axial tomography (CAT) or computed tomography (CT) scanners, helping doctors locate and identify tumors, size anomalies, or other physiological or functional organ problems.
One of the most recognizable uses of radiation is in the treatment of cancer — but a new contender has entered the race. Conventional radiation therapy (which uses x-rays) is notoriously hard on the body; entire bodily systems are affected by the treatment rather than just the tumor, leading to a number of agonizing side effects.
Proton therapy, however, has gained popularity due to its ability to target the tumor with precision; essentially, it is a type of radiation that stops at a very specific point in the targeted tissue. Just as magnetic card readers pull very specific data, proton therapy targets a very specific area. Because surrounding healthy tissues are left mostly untouched, the painful and uncomfortable side effects are significantly lessened.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have performed a review (the largest of its kind) focused on evaluating whether or not patients undergoing radiation therapy at the same time as chemotherapy experienced serious adverse events within 90 days to scientifically prove the case for proton therapy.
“We looked at grade three side effects — including pain or difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, nausea or diarrhea, among others — often severe enough for patients to be hospitalized,” said the study’s lead author Brian Baumann, M.D., an adjunct assistant professor of radiation oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an assistant professor of radiation oncology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Our clinical experience is that concurrent chemoradiation therapy patients treated with protons, rather than photons, tend to have fewer side effects. While there is some literature supporting that finding for several disease sites, we did not expect the magnitude of the benefit to be this large.”
The results were staggering: 11.5% of proton patients experienced a grade three or higher side effect, compared to 27.6% of the photon group (conventional radiation). A weighted analysis of both groups found that the relative risk of a severe toxicity was two-thirds lower for proton patients compared to photon patients. In terms of comfort levels, proton therapy is far more bearable than traditional photon radiation.