How Ashya King's Dramatic Recovery Is Changing Cancer Treatment

Britain is opening its first three proton beam therapy centers.

“The advantage of proton beam therapy is that it is more precise than x-rays,” Keole said. “It can reduce the dose of total radiation by up to 70 percent.”

Think of x-rays as being like bullets and proton beams like depth charges, Keole explained. Like a bullet, x-rays travel through the body and come out the other side with no way to control them, Keole said. Protons stop right at the target site, thereby concentrating the radiation on the cancer cells while sparing more of the surrounding healthy tissue, he added.

Less than one percent of cancer patients are given proton beam treatment, Keole said. One big barrier is cost.

“It can cost four or five times more to build a proton therapy treatment center compared to a traditional x-ray facility,” he said.

Another drawback: It may take years or even decades to realize the advantages from proton therapy. That’s why it’s often a good option to treat childhood cancers but probably not practical for patients with shorter predicted life expectancy, Keole said.

Keole said he has worked with the NHS to bring up to 150 cancer patients a year from the U.K. to the U.S. for treatment. He said he expected fewer patients to make the trip abroad once the new centers open in the U.K.

“We only intended our programs to be a bridge until their centers were up and running,” he said. “It will be good for them to be treated in their own country.”