The information which follows is the opinion of the named author(s).
It does not necessarily constitute the opinion of The Prostate Cancer InfoLink or of Comed Communications, Inc.
Conformal Proton Beam Radiotherapy of Cancer
Carl J. Rossi, Jr., MD
Department of Radiation Medicine, Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda, California
Originally Received March 4, 1995; Last Revised March 5, 1996.
What is conformal PBRT? |
Is PBRT new or experimental? |
Where in the US can I receive PBRT? |
Combining PBRT with other forms of radiotherapy |
PBRT in prostate cancer |
How is PBRT planned and delivered? |
What happens in the treatment room? |
Other cancers treated with PBRT |
This article is provided primarily for patients and family members in the hope that it will
answer some of the
most commonly asked questions about conformal proton beam radiotherapy, and to illustrate
the usefulness of
this form of radiation treatment in a variety of clinical situations. A separate article
specifically addressing the use of this form of treatment for patients with prostate
cancer is currently in development.
What is conformal proton beam radiotherapy?
Conformal proton beam radiotherapy (henceforth known as PBRT) is a form of external beam
refers to the fact that the radiation is generated and administered by a
machine outside of the patient's body, as opposed to implanted sources of radiation,
which either temporarily or permanently place radioactive sources within a person's body.
Other forms of external beam radiotherapy include x-ray therapy and cobalt-60 gamma-ray
"Conformal" means that it is possible to shape or "conform" the beam in three dimensions
to "fit" the shape of the organ or tumor to be radiated, so that the majority of the radiation
is administered to the organ or tumor and not to the surrounding, normal tissue. It is this
unique ability to conform a proton beam to a specific tumor or target which sets PBRT apart from
other forms of external beam radiotherapy.
Is PBRT a new or experimental therapy for cancer?
The answer to this question is an emphatic "No" on both counts. The ability of
PBRT to be shaped to particular targets within the human body was recognized in
the 1940s when cyclotrons ("atom smashers") were being developed. The first
scientific paper discussing their potential use in cancer treatment was published in
the Journal of Radiology in July 1946. The author of the paper was Robert
Wilson, a world-renowned physicist who was involved in early cyclotron development at the
Donner (later Lawrence) radiation laboratory of the University of California. In this paper,
Dr Wilson discussed how a proton beam could be manipulated to deliver high doses of
radiation to a small target while at the same time sparing surrounding tissues.
As a direct outgrowth of this paper, scientists at the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory and
the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory began to modify their research cyclotrons to permit
human treatment. Initial treatments of intracranial sites began in the late 1950s.
The results were so encouraging that, as the technology improved, modifications were
made to existing machines to permit treatment of deep tumors in virtually any part of the body.
Extensive studies were also carried out regarding the "radiobiology" of PBRT, or how protons
interact with normal and malignant tissue. By the late 1980s, some 14,000 patients around
the world had been treated with PBRT, and follow-up studies on some patients stretched
back over 20 years.
Because of the significant number of patients treated, and the amount of follow-up data
now available, it has become possible to assess the effectiveness of PBRT in cancer therapy.
In virtually every tumor site examined, the higher tumor doses and lower normal tissue doses
delivered by PBRT have been shown to improve local control and to reduce acute and late
complications as compared with x-ray therapy. When the available data on PBRT was reviewed
federal Medicare program and the National Cancer Institute in the early 1990s, it was decided
that sufficient data existed to classify PBT as an accepted (i.e., non-experimental)
treatment for any of a number of localized tumors and for treatment of intracranial aneurysms.
Loma Linda University and Harvard University are currently engaged in a series of studies
sponsored by the National Cancer Institute to determine the "best" or optimal PBRT dose for
certain cancers (such as prostate cancer and a variety of brain tumors). It is important to
emphasize that these studies are not being done to see if PBRT is an effective therapy.
This has already been established. What is being determined now is the optimal way to use
this tool in the fight against cancer. Similar studies are performed all the time with
other standard forms of cancer therapy such as chemotherapy and surgery.
Where in the US can I receive PBRT?
At the time of writing there are two facilities in the US treating patients with protons on a
regular basis. The older facility is the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Cyclotron
which has been operational since 1957. Currently, that facility is limited to treating less
than 10 patients per day, and cannot routinely irradiate many deep tumors. To overcome this
problem, a new PBRT facility is being constructed at Massachusetts General Hospital. This new
facility has been designed to treat up to 100 patients per day, and is scheduled to open in
Loma Linda's PBRT center opened in 1990 and is now fully operational, with four rooms available
for the treatment of patients and a fifth room for basic science research. The facility was
designed to treat a maximum of approximately 100 patients per day and is currently averaging
about 80 patient treatments per day.
Is PBRT ever combined with other forms of radiation therapy?
Conformal PBRT is often used in conjunction with x-ray therapy to "boost" the levels of radiation
at sites of gross disease and to allow irradiation of a large volume of tissue at doses
sufficient to sterilize microscopic cancer.
An example of this type of combination radiotherapy is available in the treatment of certain
stages of prostate cancer. Depending on the amount of cancer within the gland, and the
type of prostate cancer present, a patient may be at risk for harboring microscopic "nests"
of prostate cancer cells within the pelvic lymph nodes. These nodes lie at some distance
from the prostate, and will not be irradiated if conformal PBRT alone is delivered to the
Similarly, the use of x-ray therapy alone will limit the total dose of radiation which can be
given to the prostate because of the high doses which would be delivered to large amounts of
normal tissue. The solution is to utilize conformal PBRT to treat the prostate gland and to
follow this with x-ray therapy of the pelvic area to treat the lymph nodes. By giving some of
treatment with conformal PBRT, the total x-ray dose can be reduced substantially, thus reducing
the risk of complications while simultaneously permitting treatment of potentially cancerous
lymph nodes (which would be missed if x-rays were not used at all). An analogous situation
is seen in the treatment of many head and neck cancers, when there is also a significant risk
lymph node involvement.
Why is there so much interest in using PBRT in prostate cancer?
The prostate gland lies deep within the pelvis and is surrounded by critical structures such
as the bladder and the rectum.
Cancer of the prostate is now the most common malignancy in males (excluding skin cancers). In
1996 it has been estimated by the American Cancer Society that over 300,000 new cases of
prostate cancer will be diagnosed and that as many as 41,400 patients will die of this disease.
There is abundant evidence in the medical literature to demonstrate that radiation therapy or
surgery (radical prostatectomy) are effective treatments for this disease. It has also been
that the ability of radiation therapy to control prostate cancer is highly dependent upon the
total dose of radiation which is delivered. Higher doses equate to a higher degree of disease
control. However, with normal external beam x-ray therapy alone (including three-dimensional
conformal x-ray therapy) a point of diminishing returns is reached beyond which further
escalation begins to cause unacceptable side effects.
This risk of unacceptable side effects can be reduced by using conformal PBRT for some or all
of the treatment by virtue of the tissue-sparing capabilities of PBRT on normal tissue as
external beam x-radiation. You may remember that a proton beam has a well defined high-dose
area which can be manipulated to surround an irregularly shaped target (like the prostate gland)
and thus give comparatively low doses of protons to the nearby normal tissues. In the
treatment of prostate cancer, this tissue-sparing capability allows for reductions in the dose
of radiation which may be delivered to the bladder and the rectal area while permitting the
necessary high doses to be delivered to the prostate. The outcome is a reduced risk of
radiation damage to the bladder and the rectal area -- one of the major risks associated with
conventional x-radiation therapy for prostate cancer.
How is PBRT planned and delivered?
It is impossible to deliver PBRT precisely without having (1) a three-dimensional reconstruction
of the target organ or tumor and its relationship to the surrounding structures and (2) a
reproducible treatment position to minimize movement errors (sometimes referred to as a
The three-dimensional data are usually obtained by performing a computed tomography (CT) scan
through the region of interest (chest, pelvis, etc.) with "slices" being taken at 3-5 mm
intervals. Before the CT scan is performed, some type of immobilization device is constructed
for the patient so that it is easy to reconstruct the patient's precise position each day
during treatment. A typical immobilization device is a full-body "pod" constructed of a
form-fitting foam liner surrounded by a rigid plastic (PVC) shell. For treatment of brain
tumors, a custom-manufactured mask is utilized. The CT scan is obtained with the patient
lying in the immobilization device so that the thickness of the immobilizing materials
can be taken into account during the PBRT planning process.
Once the "pod" has been manufactured and the CT scan is complete, the treating physician
sits down at a computer workstation and traces on the computer screen the tumor or organ
to be irradiated and the surrounding normal tissue slice by slice. Next, a team of physicists
and dosimetrists creates a proton beam treatment plan by generating a series of proton beams
which are carefully designed to enter the patient at a variety of angles and by calculating the
radiation dose being given to the tumor or target organ and the normal surrounding tissues.
This plan is reviewed by the treating physician and, once approved, is electronically
transferred to a series of automated machines which create the appropriate apertures and tissue
compensating filters needed to turn the computer-generated plan into a treatment reality.
All of these devices are calibrated by the physics support staff before the patient's
first treatment to ensure that the planning and process of actual beam creation has been
What happens in the treatment room?
After changing into a gown, the patient enters the treatment room and lies down in the "pod"
or puts on the mask. By utilizing a number of laser beams, the patient and the "pod" are
moved to a position which is customarily within half a centimeter of the calculated optimal
position. To further refine the patient's position, a series of low-power diagnostic
radiographs are then taken. Distances from various bone landmarks to the "isocenter" are
measured on these films each day and compared to identical measurements made on
computer-generated films based on the planning CT scan. Usually, it is necessary to
move the "pod" a few millimeters to make the daily position conform exactly with the
ideal treatment position. These measurements and movements are performed by radiation
therapy technologists and verified by a physician before each treatment.
After any necessary movements have been made, the treatment devices unique to each
patient are loaded into the beam-line. All of these devices are identified by an
individual bar-code which must be scanned by a laser scanner (similar to those you might
see at a supermarket) before the computer will permit a treatment to take place. The
purpose of this system is to minimize any risk that a particular patient might be treated with
another patient's unique set of apertures and compensating filters.
At this point, the technologists and the physician retire to a control room located
outside each treatment room and initiate the treatment. Protons enter the room as a
series of discrete "spills" or "pulses" which (like x-rays) cannot be either seen or felt.
Once the prescribed radiation dose has been delivered, the computer shuts off the
proton beam, the technologists re-enter the room, and the patient gets out from the
"pod" and changes back out of the gown.
Other cancers (and benign conditions) treated with PBRT
The following is a current list of the cancers and other benign conditions (listed by
body site) which are currently being treated at Loma Linda using PBRT, either alone or
in combination with x-ray therapy:
We are in the process of performing improvements to the synchrotron
and the proton beam transport system to allow treatment of large fields such as those
required to breast cancer and Hodgkin's disease. We anticipate that this capability
will exist by the end of 1997.
- Brain and head/neck
- Acoustic neuroma
- Ocular melanoma
- Subfoveal neurovascularization
- Intracranial arteriovenous malformations
- Brain metastases
- Multiple head and neck sites (e.g., nasopharynx, tonsil,
base of tongue, paranasal sinuses, etc.)
- Spinal cord
- Cordomas, including those involving the base of the skull
- Medically inoperable non-small-cell lung cancer (usually stage I or
stage II tumors which have not metastasized to any other site in patient's whose
general health makes removal of the lung impossible)
- Hepatocellular carcinoma
- Liver metastasis (usually solitary)
- Pancreatic cancer
- Retroperitoneal sarcomas
- Prostate cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Sacral cordomas
This article provides a useful introduction for the patient to the general principles behind
the use of proton beam radiation therapy as well as some general comments on its relevance in the
treatment of prostate cancer. Dr Rossi has agreed to a request from The Prostate Cancer
InfoLink to develop an article which
addresses more specifically issues regarding the use of PBRT in the treatment of prostate cancer
in the near future.
The Prostate Cancer InfoLink would draw to the attention of its users that
while the principles of the application of PBRT to prostate cancer are reasonably well defined,
the relative safety of this technique is well known, it will only be with the publication of
data from treatment of a large, well documented series of prostate cancer patients at
specific dose levels with a
mean follow-up of five years that we will truly begin to appreciate whether this technique
can provide clinical efficacy and safety comparable to other forms of therapy. The Prostate
InfoLink is of the opinion that PBRT represents a valid form of treatment for selected patients
with prostate cancer at this time. It will be helpful when more prostate-specific data are
data regarding long-term disease-free survival and adverse reactions to treatment.
Other questions which may need to be asked about PBRT are whether (as appears to be the case
with external beam radiotherapy) neoadjuvant and adjuvant hormone therapy can offer a
significant disease-free survival benefit, and indeed whether such combination treatment
might even offer an overall survival benefit compared to PBRT alone.
[This "editorial comment" was part of the original page.]