Cutting-edge UK cancer treatment centre to house next-generation radiotherapy research

Artist's impression of how the UCLH Proton Beam Therapy Centre will look. Picture courtesy of Scott Tallon Walker

Artist’s impression of how the UCLH Proton Beam Therapy Centre will look. Picture courtesy of Scott Tallon Walker

Particle physics isn’t just for exploring the origins of the universe. The Department of Health has just announced £250 million of funding for state-of-the-art Proton Beam Therapy cancer treatment centres in London and Manchester, which will use high-energy physics technology to fire sub-atomic particles at lethal growths. In addition to the three treatment rooms at UCLH which this massive machine will service, one station will be exclusively dedicated to much-needed research by UCL Engineering researchers.

Proton Beam Therapy (PBT) is a much more precise way of targeting tumours, as it means that the energy to knock out the malignant cells can be dumped just where it is needed, saving healthy cells from damage. This is particularly crucial for paediatric cancers and those growing near highly sensitive tissue such as the optic nerve and the brain.

The strength of this new kind of radiotherapy is its ability to precisely target, engineering skills are crucial to sculpt and direct the beam of sub-atomic particles as a medical tool. Physicists from the same research group at UCL that contributes to the LHC will pick the best equipment to generate a suitable proton stream, and monitor its quality. Then medical physicists and beam engineers work on equipment, controls and simulations to make the particle stream customizable in width, energy and time of pulse.

Armed with these options the beam can be directed to fully irradiate all malignant tissue at a lethal dose while avoiding the healthy tissues around it – a task made more difficult by any movement of the patient’s body. Medical imaging specialists from UCL CMIC can help here by developing analysis techniques to identify and lock-on to the targets within a medical scan. If the calculations are correct then the protons will damage the cells irreparably, causing them to die. Even the beds in which the patients rest while receiving treatment need engineering considerations, so the beam can be lined up accurately and pass through the support if needed for 360° access.

There are only 30 PBT clinics worldwide, and very few of these conduct research to develop the technology. Due to this, PBT research has many open challenges, including:

  • accurate delivery of the beam with millimetre precision,
  • monitoring of the delivered dose strength and direction,
  • establishing further data on the effect of dose delivery to various tissues,
  • and developing computing techniques to reliably extrapolate from the small data sets clinical trials produce.

The building of this new centre presents many opportunities for demanding engineering in the service of patient care and developing the abilities of medical treatment, as well as providing therapy to patients close to their homes.  UCL Engineering’s expertise in radiotherapy and medical physics is well-suited to this massive endeavor, ultimately culminating in better treatment; treatment to hit tumours hard while preserving healthy tissue in the vulnerable patients.

Above: the location of the PBT centre in central London, and the scale of the underground machines which will supply the beam.