Proton Beam Therapy saved Ashya King's life

A photo of Ashya and his mother, Naghmeh
A photo of Ashya and his mother, Naghmeh

In August 2014 the story of Ashya King, a five year old British boy who suffered from an aggressive brain tumour, resulted in global outrage after his parents, Naghmeh and Brett King, were arrested for transporting the hospitalised British boy abroad to undergo life saving treatment.

Doctors at Southampton General Hospital in the UK reportedly told the parents that their son would only have four months to live after being diagnosed with a stage four medulloblastoma, an aggressive type of brain tumour.

The Guardian stated that despite the Kings' wishes, the hospital refused to consider referring Ashya for proton beam therapy (PBT) overseas. The cutting-edge treatment is a highly targeted form of radiotherapy used to treat certain cancers.

Doctors stated that there isn’t evidence to prove that the treatment would be successful in Ashya’s case. It seems that now they may have found their first piece of evidence as the five-year-old's family told Sky News of his "miracle" recovery after the centre where he was treated, Prague's Motol Hospital, declared him free from cancer.

Read: Why Clive Rice is going to Bangalore for brain cancer treatment

So what exactly is proton beam therapy?

As mentioned previously, proton beam therapy (PBT) is a form of radiation treatment. As with all forms of radiotherapy, high-energy radiation is used to destroy the DNA of cancer cells.

The difference lies in the use of protons. Protons can be targeted far more accurately than X-rays. An article from the University of Lincoln in London states that the treatment can target tumours without affecting the surrounding tissue, it is ideal for treating tumours of the eyes, spine and the brain.

Proton beam therapy is often used on children as it causes less damage to other bodily tissue, reducing the chance that a child might develop a second cancer in later life.

According to Proton Therapy Today, PBT is currently offered at 40 centres worldwide. They believe that the treatment is of vital importance as an innovative treatment option for cancer.

Plans for PBT in Britain

Despite the fact that the United Kingdom has recently come out top in a study published by the Commonwealth Fund comparing the healthcare systems of eleven of the world’s most wealthy countries, PBT isn’t yet available in the UK.

The British government has meanwhile said that from April 2018, proton beam therapy will be offered to up to 1,500 cancer patients at two major hospitals – UCL in London and the Christie cancer hospital in the northern hub city of Manchester. 

Until then, British cancer patients who doctors believe would benefit from the specialist treatment will continue to be sent overseas – either to the United States or Switzerland – for treatment paid for by the taxpayer-funded National Health Service (NHS), the experts said.

Read: Men opting for proton beam treatment for prostate cancer

Is PBT available in South Africa?

A representative at iThemba labs in Somerset West told Health24 that proton beam therapy is available in South Africa, but due to a number of constraints, the treatment is currently only used on benign treatments. Malignant cancers are yet to be treated using PBT in South Africa due to the high cost.

In cases such as that of Ashya King, patients would be referred overseas for treatment, often to the U.S., should they be able to afford the treatment and travel expenses.

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