The Blog

UK Lags Behind Europe on Revolutionary Cancer Therapy. For Now.

The NHS is spending £250 million on two of the first-generation proton beam machines, to be based in London and Manchester respectively, which are due to be operational before the end of 2018.

Three months from a general election, the National Health Service has come back into focus. It will surely play a pivotal role in deciding the composition of the next government. As a healthcare professional, I welcome its move back into the forefront of the public psyche.

Central to healthcare provision in the UK is cancer care.

Cancer claims 160,000 lives in the UK every year - and while we hear a lot about research breakthroughs, new drugs coming onto the market and are given more advice about how to stave off its deadly threat, the brutal truth is that cancer therapy in the UK is not up to scratch.

Presently, we are being outdone by our American and European counterparts. And this only means one thing. Britons are more at risk - and more taxpayer's money is being spent on sending our patients abroad.

Just look at proton beam therapy - the technological revolution that was catapulted into UK living rooms last year by Ashya King and his parents.

Proton beam therapy is an advanced form of radiotherapy that targets tumors with greater precision than other radiotherapy based treatments.

Last autumn, the parents of five-year-old Ashya, who had a life-threatening brain tumor, fought and won a controversial battle to get him treatment at a proton beam centre in Prague, paid for by the NHS.

Why? Because the only existing proton therapy facility in the UK is at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, which is used exclusively to treat very rare ocular cancers.

And so, since 2008, the NHS has sent a total of 400 children abroad for proton beam therapy at a cost of £100,000 each.

Ludicrous you might say. There are three such facilities in Germany, two in France, two in Poland and one in the Czech Republic - where Ashya was sent. But change is afoot.

The public and private sectors are determined to bridge the gap between proton provision in the UK and abroad.

For it's part, the NHS is spending £250 million on two of the first-generation proton beam machines, to be based in London and Manchester respectively, which are due to be operational before the end of 2018.

And the private sector? I am part of a team which is determined to get a proton machine installed and on stream sooner. A full year earlier than the NHS, in fact.

It will be the country's first advanced cancer treatment machine and has been made possible following a pioneering £30m deal with Howard De Walden Estates, owner of London's leading medical properties on Harley Street.

It will see our proton beam machine built and installed in the iconic venue, at a lower cost and in a more compact facility than the NHS planned alternative. We estimate that the new centre will become fully operational by 2017 and will treat over 300 patients a year, a number that could be doubled if a second treatment room is added to the site.

Linac Image Guided Hadron Technology (LIGHT), the technology that Advanced Oncotherapy has developed in collaboration with CERN, allows for more rapid movement and energy variation of the proton beam than is currently available from existing technologies. Put plainly, it is more advanced than current machines being used and the technology that the NHS is soon to procure.

But more crucially is this fact. The UK will be catching up with the rest of the world. And even while the NHS builds its own machines, it should be possible to cut the taxpayer's eye-watering £100k per patient bill significantly by referring cancer sufferers - often children with rare, life-threatening cancers - to the planned Harley Street clinic.

It will no doubt be of great comfort to all of us, the majority of whom have friends of families who are suffering or have suffered with a range of cancers, that the UK will soon have the best equipment available to beat the most deadly of diseases.

And as the public go to the polls with our health service at the forefront of their minds, we as a country now know we will soon be back leading the globe on cancer care.