Maastricht – On Tuesday 7 February, MAASTRO’s new proton therapy centre in Maastricht (Netherlands) treated a patient with proton therapy for the first time. Proton therapy is an innovative technique that substantially reduces the risk of side effects for cancer patients. With proton therapy, the radiation is essentially localized in the tumour and it does not scatter into surrounding healthy tissue. This is an enormous advantage to surrounding vulnerable organs and healthy tissue, for example the optic nerve or memory regions.
Fewer side effects are expected with proton therapy. That is good news. For many people who have had cancer, life is never the same afterwards. There is a life before the illness and a life after the illness, we often hear patients say. In line with nationally-determined directives and selection criteria, expectations are that approximately 3% of all irradiated cancer patients will qualify for this form of radiotherapy: i.e. only patients for whom proton therapy will have a demonstrable benefit. In the Netherlands, four licences have been granted for proton therapy. In Europe, MAASTRO is unique since it has been able to integrate proton technology into its existing radiotherapy clinic.
The precise size and location of the tumour is determined using a CT scan before the treatment is started. “On the basis of this, a radiotherapy plan is drafted for both techniques, photons and protons,” said Dr. Maria Jacobs, director of MAASTRO. “Only after it has been determined that the added value of the new treatment is significant enough may one proceed with proton therapy.” The unique thing about protons is that they can be so targeted that the full energy of the protons stays precisely focused on the tumour. This keeps damage to healthy tissue surrounding the tumour to a minimum. And so the risk of side effects is reduced. The tumour can be treated with a higher dose of radiation, thanks to the precision of the proton beam. “This is especially important for tumours that are found close to radiation-sensitive body parts. We start by using the new radiotherapy technique to treat head and neck cancers. It is precisely in this area that many surrounding organs and tissue can be damaged by radiation. We thus hope to avoid, for example, possible memory problems in these patients. In the course of 2019, proton therapy will also be made available to other categories of patients in stages.”
Distraction and feeling secure
The work of MAASTRO’s proton therapy centre embraces an innovative vision of patient experience. “This is certainly not your standard medical centre,” said Maria Jacobs. “Based on functionality and our experiences with patients, we looked at how the rooms and spaces affect our patients’ emotional state. Simultaneously being distracted and feeling secure is essential for our patients. And we created such an environment by working with special, soft materials and colours. We also want to soften the route, the so-called ‘labyrinth’, that the patient has to follow to reach the radiation unit, with moving images and/or music. For many of our patients, this is a scary time.”
Cooperation with the hospitals
Maastricht UMC+ has a 20% stake in the proton therapy centre of MAASTRO. In addition, to select the right patients, there is very close co-operation with the medical specialists of MAASTRO and the medical specialists of the Catharina Ziekenhuis (Catharina Hospital) in Eindhoven, Radboud UMC Nijmegen, the Radiotherapy Group (Arnhem/Deventer) and Instituut Verbeeten in Tilburg.