U.K. turns to proton-beam therapy to 'save lives'

The U.K. is setting aside $380 million to build two proton-beam therapy centers, which are expected to start treating patients by 2018, according to a recent government announcement. Currently the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS) has to send patients who need or want the therapy to the U.S., where proton beam therapy, while more widely available, has created some controversy.

American hospitals are engaged in an arms race to get expensive proton treatment facilities built, even though there are concerns such centers are only being built to generate profits instead of enhancing medical care. For instance, two Washington area hospital systems--Johns Hopkins Medicine and MedStar Health--are seeking approval to build facilities that will cost more than $150 million, despite the fact that such a facility already is being built in Baltimore, 40 miles away.

"Neither should be building," Ezekiel Emanuel, a former healthcare adviser to the Obama administration who is now at the University of Pennsylvania, said. "We don't have evidence that there's a need for them in terms of medical care. They're simply done to generate profits."

The argument in favor of proton beam therapy is that it allows doctors to precisely target radiation to reach certain depths in the both, thereby reducing radiation exposure and potential side effects. The question is whether that leads to better medical results.

While there is a consensus that proton therapy is beneficial in treating tumors close to sensitive areas--like the eye, brain and spinal cord (where the potential for radiation damage is high), as well as in treating childhood cancers--studies have shown that the benefits of proton therapy in treating prostate cancer is less certain. Despite this, there has been a significant increase in the use of proton therapy for prostate cancer.

In the U.K., the argument for the proton-beam therapy centers is that they will enable the NHS to cut cancer treatment costs.

"By investing in proton-beam therapy facilities, we will be able to treat more patients in the U.K. and reduce the stress placed on families who have had to travel to the United States to receive this innovative treatment," Public Health Minister Anna Soubry said.

To learn more:
- read the statement from the U.K.'s National Health Service

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