Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

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KU Leuven and UCL invest €40 million in proton therapy centre

KU Leuven and the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) are investing in a new research and treatment centre for proton therapy. The venture is also being supported by Ghent University Hospital.

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In proton therapy (lower scan) the radiation dose to the tumour is intensified while the dose to the surrounding healthy tissue remains low. This is an important advantage over standard x-ray (photon) radiation therapy (upper scan).

Proton therapy has shown to be an effective weapon in treating cancer in children and tumours of the central nervous system. The new centre, Belgium’s first, will be housed at University Hospitals Leuven’s Gasthuisberg campus and will be operated by teams from University Hospitals Leuven and Saint-Luc University Hospital.

About 50% of cancer patients are currently treated with radiation therapy. Despite significant improvements in recent years, the method still adversely affects healthy tissue in the proximity of the tumour. Proton therapy (see box) – which can be administered in a much more targeted way, thus sparing healthy tissue – may offer a solution.

Proton therapy has enjoyed public support in neighbouring countries, but Belgian hospitals are not equipped to provide it. Today, Belgian patients requiring proton therapy must be referred to hospitals in Paris, Essen, Heidelberg, or Villingen. Some 150 to 200 patients per 10 million people require the therapy each year, but this group is expected to grow as research into proton therapy progresses.

To fill this gap, KU Leuven and UCL are investing 40 million euros in a new research and treatment centre for proton therapy. The venture is being supported by Ghent University Hospital and an industry partner. Researchers and industry experts will develop proton and carbon ion treatments at the centre.

The centre will also reach out to referring physicians throughout Belgium to provide proton therapy to patients. Treatment will be carried out in close consultation with the referring physician. Rapid developments in information technology enable a portion of the prep work for this treatment to be done remotely.

The centre will be operated by specialists from the Saint-Luc University Hospital and University Hospitals Leuven and will be located on University Hospitals Leuven’s Gasthuisberg campus, where the Leuven Cancer Institute is housed. With over 5,000 new patients each year, the Leuven Cancer Institute is the largest cancer centre in Belgium and is a benchmark institute internationally – just as the Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc Cancer Centre is in Belgium’s French-speaking region.

PROTON THERAPY: FEATURES AND BENEFITS

  • As in other European countries, cancer has evolved into the leading cause of death in Belgium. An estimated 70,000 Belgians will be diagnosed with cancer in 2015.
  • Standard X-ray (photon) radiation therapy is a major cancer therapy. X-ray radiation therapy, either alone or in combination with surgery and/or chemotherapy, is curative one in two cancer patients. But despite considerable technological progress, many patients experience tumour relapse or permanent side effects. In certain cases, the tumour’s proximity to healthy, radiation-sensitive tissues makes it difficult to eradicate without seriously affecting the patient’s quality of life.
  • Proton therapy, which uses a beam of protons to irradiate diseased tissue, allows the radiation dose to be intensified at the site of the tumour, while keeping the dose low in the surrounding healthy tissue. This minimises unwanted tissue damage and lowers the probability of relapse.
  • Protons emit their dose in a very particularway. Depending on their energy, they penetrate tissue (the higher the energy, the deeper the penetration) and release the radiation dose in the final millimetres of the trajectory.
  • From a clinical standpoint, proton therapy is used in other European countries mainly to treat cancer in children and certain rare cancers in adults for which existing treatments are ineffective. Skull base tumours and tumours in the vicinity of sensitive tissues such as the spine and the optic nerve are classic examples.
  • In addition to better protecting healthy tissue, proton therapy lowers the risk of secondary, radiation-induced, cancers.

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