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Particle beam radiation therapy is promising, but unproven for treating cancer

Research Activities, November 2009

Particle beam radiation therapy, a technology used to treat several types of cancer, is considered by some clinicians to be better than traditional radiation. However, there is limited evidence about its safety compared with other types of radiation therapy, according to a new comparative effectiveness report funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Particle beam radiation therapy-also known as charged particle radiation therapy or proton beam radiation therapy-uses beams of protons or other charged particles for cancer radiation treatment. Particle beam radiation therapy is an alternative to other types of cancer radiation therapy such as external radiotherapy with ionizing photon (X- or gamma-ray) beams or brachytherapy with implanted radioactive sources. All types of radiation therapy can harm both cancerous and healthy tissues, so clinicians strive to target the radiation to the cancer while avoiding adjacent healthy tissues. This is particularly important for tumors adjacent to critical body parts such as those in the eye, brain, head, and neck.

Particle beam radiation therapy can target the radiation with a high degree of precision, but its potential advantages over other radiotherapy alternatives have not been verified in long-term outcome studies, according to the new AHRQ technical brief. Particle beam radiation therapy was introduced as an experimental treatment in the 1950s but was not cleared for widespread use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until 2001. The technology is very expensive-an estimated $175 million for each device-and is usually only available in large academic medical centers. Only seven centers in the United States currently provide the therapy, with an additional center currently under construction and expected to be operational by 2010. The technical brief did not indicate that particle beam radiation therapy is riskier than conventional radiation therapy.�However, most studies about the therapy were conducted on small numbers of patients and did not compare the safety of particle beam radiation therapy against other therapies.

For many cancers other than head and neck cancers, there are not enough comparative studies in the literature to base an evaluation of the clinical or cost effectiveness of particle beam radiation therapy compared with other treatments.�AHRQ is currently reviewing scientific studies on radiation therapies for head and neck cancers that will evaluate the clinical effectiveness of particle beam radiation therapy for those cancers. The report, Technical Brief: Particle Beam Radiation Therapies for Cancer, is the Agency's first in a series of technical briefs-rapid-turnaround reports that summarize key issues regarding emerging treatments. Technical briefs highlight where more research is needed and where research may be sufficient to warrant a full systematic review. Technical briefs are produced by AHRQ's Effective Health Care Program. Future briefs will describe the evidence on fetal surgery, stereotactic surgery for nonbrain cancers, and percutaneous heart valves. This brief can be found on AHRQ's Effective Health Care Program Web page (

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Page last reviewed November 2009
Internet Citation: Particle beam radiation therapy is promising, but unproven for treating cancer: Research Activities, November 2009. November 2009. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.