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What Does the Future Hold for Proton Therapy?

Around 40 years ago, Belgian researcher Yves Jongen believed that proton technology could be the most effective form of cancer treatment. In 2013, he won a European Inventor award for his proton generating device. Now, in 2018, there are over 27 proton therapy centers in the United States and most of them are facing serious financial hardship due to insurance restrictions and lack of evidence that shows the procedure is a better option than traditional radiation.

Proton therapy utilizes nuclear particle accelerators to shoot proton beams into tumors at lightning fast speeds. The machines take up enormous space, sometimes as wide-spanning as a football field with 18-feet thick walls. The technology targets cancerous areas while avoiding healthy tissue. It allows for administering high levels of radiation to cancer cells while steering clear of critical organs and tissue in the tumors’ vicinity. However, according to news reports, there is little research that demonstrates proton therapy’s superiority to conventional radiation. One lung cancer study found patients who received proton therapy experienced the same outcomes as those who underwent traditional radiation, a significantly more cost-effective option.

Investors were initially excited to support a venture that appeared to yield massive financial benefits. However, many insurance companies refuse to pay for the treatment. The price tag is exorbitant compared to most out-of-pocket procedures: a whopping $48,000.

As proton therapy centers start to close one by one, its supporters reflect on the technology’s trajectory. Executive director of the National Association for Proton Therapy accuses “over-exuberant expectations” for the technology’s demise. “I think maybe that’s what went on with some of the centers. They thought the technology would grow faster than it has,” he told Kaiser Health News.

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