Publish date: 02 January 2022

Inside the proton beam therapy room

A new national proton beam therapy centre based at UCLH has treated its first patients.

The centre, housed within the lower floors of the Grafton Way Building, is the second of only two NHS centres in the UK. Between them, the two will cover the whole of England, with the UCLH centre treating patients in the south and The Christie in Manchester treating patients in the north.

The work of the centre and its team was covered in today’s The Sunday Times which described the proton beam therapy treatment room as “an otherworldly chamber dominated by the huge proton gantry, all sleek curves and clean lines”. 

And on Wednesday, BBC Morning Live’s health segment presented by Dr Xand van Tulleken, will focus on another young patient to receive the therapy at UCLH.

The national proton beam therapy service operating out of UCLH and The Christie was funded by a government investment of £250 million. Ultimately, they will treat up to 1,300 patients from across England. Before the NHS service opened in Manchester in December 2018, the only option was to be treated via the NHS overseas treatment programme in Europe or the USA.

Proton beam therapy (PBT) is a type of radiotherapy which can target tumours with millimetre accuracy, limiting the impact on the surrounding healthy tissue. Patients treated with PBT range from very young children to adults who have hard to treat cancers. These may be tumours in the brain, on the spine, or near the reproductive organs, where it is particularly important to protect the surrounding tissue. Around a third of the patients will be children and teenagers. The treatment course takes around six weeks, with people staying in nearby accommodation and visiting the centre as outpatients each day.

David Probert, Chief Executive said: “I am extremely proud of everyone involved in the programme of work to open the PBT centre at UCLH. I would like to say massive congratulations to all the staff involved, whose leadership and determination has been outstanding. I am really pleased that patients are now able to benefit from this extremely precise form of radiotherapy closer to home.”

The incredible equipment needed to deliver this precise treatment is in the basement of the Grafton Way Building. The cyclotron weighs 90 tonnes and is the size of a family car. It generates the protons spinning ionised hydrogen at two-thirds the speed of light. This beam is guided via massive magnets to one of the four treatment rooms, where a three-storey machine delivers the treatment to the patient with millimetre accuracy.

Dr Yen Ching Chang, consultant and clinical lead for proton beam therapy said: “I am absolutely delighted that we are now treating patients. Having PBT available at UCLH will make a significant difference to patients who will no longer need to travel so far for this treatment. I am really proud to be part of such a dedicated and highly motivated team.”

The UCLH PBT centre has been enhanced by charitable donations. With support from Fight for Life, the children’s waiting areas are fun spaces with lots of toys and interactive games to distract children as they wait and also a peaceful, snug area for calmer moments. Macmillan Cancer Support contributed a living room for patients, providing a quiet contemplative space. Through their partnership with Morgan Stanley, Teenage Cancer Trust have fundraised to enhance the waiting space for teenagers and young people. Individual donations and fundraising activities via UCLH Charity have funded art works and installations in the corridors, anaesthetics rooms and gantries.

Watch Dr Yen Ching Chang and lead operational radiotherapist Laura Allington explain more in these films.

Proton beam therapy at UCLH

Explaining proton beam therapy