Science

Proton therapy can protect memory of brain tumour children, study suggests

Scientists found that radiotherapy using high-energy proton particles instead of X-rays helped avoid damage to important brain regions.

Treating children with brain tumours with cutting-edge proton therapy may help protect their memory, research suggests.

Scientists compared three types of radiotherapy, including two forms of an advanced treatment that targets cancer with proton particles, the “hearts” of atoms.

They found that pencil beam scanning (PSB) proton therapy was most likely to spare regions of the brain important to memory.

PSB is a precise radiotherapy treatment that zaps tumours with pencil-thin high-energy beams of protons.

Britain’s first NHS centre delivering high-energy proton therapy opened at the Christie Hospital in Manchester in 2018.

A second centre at University College London Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is due to start taking patients next year.

Danish researchers conducted detailed studies of 10 children treated for tumours growing in the centre of their brains.

The team used CT (computerised tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans to determine how 30 structures in the children’s brains were affected by the different forms of radiotherapy.

Lead scientist Laura Toussaint, from Aarhus University Hospital, said: “We have looked at three types of radiotherapy, which all aim to successfully treat brain tumours while doing as little damage to children’s brains as possible.

“What we found was that pencil beam scanning proton therapy seems to be by far the best at avoiding parts of the brain that are important in children’s memory. The next step would be to confirm this finding with clinical research in patients.”

The treatments included volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT) – an advanced type of conventional radiotherapy – double scattering proton therapy (DSPT), and PBS.

One brain region that plays a key role in memory is the hippocampus.

The study found that 41% of the left hippocampus received low doses of radiation even with DSPT, but was spared by PBS treatment.

Results from the research were presented at the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology (Estro) 38 meeting taking place in Milan, Italy.

Professor Umberto Ricardi, president of Estro and head of oncology at the University of Turin, said: “The aim of radiotherapy is to effectively treat cancer while causing as little damage as possible to the rest of the body. This aim could not be more important than when we are treating children’s brains.

“Proton therapy is already being used in some hospitals to treat brain tumours in children, but this study offers evidence of the benefits it might bring in terms of protecting cognitive functions and quality of life. We hope this work will lead to more research in this vital area.”

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