Heavy charged particle beam therapy and related new radiotherapy technologies: The clinical potential, physics and technical developments required to deliver benefit for patients with cancer

Karen Kirkby, Norman Kirkby, Neil Burnet, Hywel Owen, Ranald Mackay, Adrian Crellin, Stuart Green

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the UK, one in two people will develop cancer during their lifetimes and radiotherapy (RT) plays a key role in effective treatment. High energy proton beam therapy commenced in the UK National Health Service in 2018. Heavier charged particles have potential advantages over protons by delivering more dose in the Bragg peak, with a sharper penumbra, lower oxygen dependence and increased biological effectiveness. However, they also require more costly equipment including larger gantries to deliver the treatment. There are significant uncertainties in the modelling of relative biolog- ical effectiveness and the effects of the fragmentation tail which can deliver dose beyond the Bragg peak. These effects need to be carefully considered especially in relation to long-term outcomes.
In 2019, a group of clinicians, clinical scientists, engineers, physical and life scientists from academia and industry, together with funding agency stakeholders, met to consider how the UK should address new technologies for RT, espe- cially the use of heavier charged particles such as helium and carbon and new modes of delivery such as FLASH and spatially fractionated radiotherapy (SFRT).
There was unanimous agreement that the UK should develop a facility for heavier charged particle therapy, perhaps constituting a new National Ion Research Centre to enable research using protons and heavier charged particles. Discussion followed on the scale and features, including which ions should be included, from protons through helium, boron, and lithium to carbon, and even oxygen. The consensus view was that any facility intended to treat patients must be located in a hospital setting while providing dedicated research space for physics, preclinical biology and clinical research with beam lines designed for both in vitro and in vivo research. The facility should to be able to investigate and deliver both ultra-high dose rate FLASH RT and SFRT (GRID, minibeams etc.). Discussion included a number of accel- erator design options and whether gantries were required. Other potential collaborations might be exploited, including with space agencies, electronics and global communications industries and the nuclear industry.
In preparation for clinical delivery, there may be opportunities to send patients overseas (for 12C or 4He ion therapy) using the model of the National Health Service (NHS) Proton Overseas Programme and to look at potential national clinical trials which include heavier ions, FLASH or SFRT. This could be accomplished under the auspices of NCRI CTRad (National Cancer Research Institute, Clinical and Translational Radiotherapy Research Working Group).
The initiative should be a community approach, involving all interested parties with a vision that combines discovery science, a translational research capability and a clinical treatment facility. Barriers to the project and ways to overcome them were discussed. Finally, a set of different scenarios of features with different costs and timelines was constructed, with consideration given to the funding environment (prer-Covid-19) and need for cross-funder collaboration.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Radiology
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2 Sept 2020


  • proton therapy, Flash, carbon ion therapy, helium ion therapy, hadron therapy, spatially fractionated radiotherapy

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Cancer
  • Manchester Cancer Research Centre


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