Conventional radiation therapies typically use x-rays to deliver radiation treatments to patients with cancer. However, centers around the United States are focusing more on the promise of proton therapy, as well as researching the links between radiation treatments and immunotherapy.
Proton therapy, rather than using x-rays, uses protons to deliver radiation doses to tumor sites. Traditional x-ray treatments often damage normal tissue while delivering radiation, which can lead to a higher toxicity and numerous side effects. Protons, on the other hand, have unique characteristics that allow them to be focused more precisely on a tumor than x-rays. This leads to less radiation toxicity affecting healthy tissue, while still deliver high-powered doses to the targeted tumor site.
Proton therapy is increasingly becoming the norm when treating pediatric cancers, because it lessens a young patient’s exposure to unnecessary radiation. Providers worry that the long-term side effects of unnecessary radiation may lead to a second malignancy in pediatric patients, but because proton therapy is so precise, it vastly reduces this concern. As proton therapies become more common, the cost of these treatments will likely decrease, and regularly providing this option to adult patients with cancer will become easier.
The recent revolution of immunotherapy has been tremendously exciting for the cancer care community. In fact, radiation oncology has been examining the connection between radiation treatments and the immune system since the 1950s. The science is referred to as the Abscopal Effect. It occurs when one tumor site is targeted with radiation, which causes it to shrink in size. Then, because of the Abscopal Effect, tumors elsewhere in the body shrink, despite not being targeted with radiation.
Now that oncologists are able to manipulate the immune system with immunotherapy agents, radiation oncologists are excited to explore the possibilities of combining radiation treatments with immunotherapy treatments. However, there’s still much research that needs to be done before we see these fields being combined and working in tandem. It’s an exciting era for cancer care and research, and it’s definitely something to look forward to.