The potential power of proton beam therapy.

Using proton beam therapy to treat cancer has previously been a cause of some controversy in the UK. The treatment has previously been deemed to be poor value for money by the NHS, and currently there are no facilities in the UK for proton beam treatment. It is currently available on the NHS to treat some eye cancers, but for other cases patients have to apply to the NHS for funding so that they can be treated abroad.

Proton beam therapy hit the headlines in 2014 when parents Brett and Naghemeh King removed their five-year-old son Ashya from hospital, triggering a nationwide manhunt. Ashya was recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumour, and there were concerns that he could become very ill if not given the correct post-operative treatment. Ashya’s parents wanted him to undergo proton beam therapy in Prague, but the type of tumour that Ashya suffered from (medulloblastoma) was not on the list of tumours approved for proton beam therapy by the NHS.

Ashya was later given proton beam therapy in Prague (funded by the NHS) and a year later it was announced that he was free of cancer.

Now a new study (published in the Lancet Oncology) suggests that not only is proton beam therapy as effective as more traditional photon therapy (that uses x-rays or gamma rays), it also appears to have significantly few side effects, particularly in children.

X-ray radiotherapy can cause damage to the surrounding tissues and organs. The fine, high energy focussed beam used in proton therapy results in a reduction in damage to the surrounding area.

Proton beam therapy is expected to be available in Newport, South Wales, by the end of the year, with treatment also available in London and Manchester in 2018.

BBC News has a summary of the new research (including a short animation on proton beam therapy):

Their news archive also has a good article on the Ashya King case:

The National Association for Proton Therapy (USA) provides plenty of information on how proton beam therapy works :

Proton therapy (and the controversy around it) has strong curriculum links with Biology, Physics, Working Scientifically. For example:


  • What is cancer?
  • What treatments are commonly used, and how do they work?
  • What are the current risks and side effects when using treatments like radiotherapy and chemotherapy?


  • Why are x-rays used for the treatment of cancers? What makes them different from UV or microwaves?
  • How do radiologists protect themselves from excessive exposure to x-rays?
  • Proton beams are more highly ionising than x-ray beams. What does this mean? Why are protons more ionising? Can you think of a particle that would be even more ionising than protons?

Working Scientifically:

  • Why has proton beam therapy previously been so hard to get on the NHS? If it’s so successful, why has it taken so long to become available?
  • Were Ashya’s parents right to remove him from hospital?

The cutting edge science of proton beam therapy, as well as other new medical breakthroughs, always provide an interesting context for teaching Science.

The National Science Learning Network, in partnership with Research Councils UK, offer a number of exciting Cutting Edge Science courses designed to help bring Cutting Edge Science into your day to day classroom practice, including courses on Medical Biology and Physics.

All CPD which is part of the Bringing Cutting Edge Science into the Classroom programme qualifies for a bursary of up to £180 per day. Click here for further details:


Subject(s)Physics, Biology, Working scientifically, Science
Age11-14, 14-16, 16-19
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