radiation therapy machine
© Shutterstock/Mark _Kostich
Radiation therapy for cancer is typically delivered in daily 10 minute sessions for five to eight weeks, but the new method uses protons to give a full course of treatment's worth of radiation in a single second, according to the new study
Cancer patients could soon have their entire course of treatment in less than a second, according to new research.

The 'quickfire cure' is on the horizon after scientists identified the theoretical dose that would be needed.

It would end the harrowing and grueling ordeal of regular hospital visits faced by millions around the world - that can go on for months.

The pioneering technique uses charged particles instead of conventional X-rays to deliver radiotherapy.

It allows high-energy protons to be targeted directly at a tumor - causing fewer side-effects. Known as FLASH radiotherapy, it is set to revolutionize oncology.

The groundbreaking study also showed it had the same effect on tumors as traditional radiation - while sparing healthy tissue due to the shorter exposure time.

'This is the first time anyone has published findings that demonstrate the feasibility of using protons - rather than electrons - to generate FLASH doses, with an accelerator currently used for clinical treatments,' said co-senior author Dr James Metz, director of the Roberts Proton Therapy Center at Pennsylvania University.

The study published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, and Physics generated the required dose with protons.

Even in a lab setting specific tools had to be developed to effectively and accurately measure the radiation. Standard detectors were rapidly saturated due to the high levels.

Other research teams have produced similar doses using electrons. But these do not penetrate deep enough into the body to be clinically useful, said Prof Metz.

Other groups have tried the approach with conventional photons. But current devices do not have the ability to generate the necessary dosage.

With technical modifications the currently available accelerators for protons can achieve sufficient FLASH doses that are biologically effective, said Prof Metz.

The Roberts Proton Therapy Center includes a dedicated research room to run such experiments.

Investigators can use photon and proton radiation side-by-side just feet from the clinic.

It's one of the few facilities in the world with those unique features. This infrastructure is what made the tests possible, said Prof Metz.

He said: 'We've been able to develop specialized systems in the research room to generate FLASH doses, demonstrate that we can control the proton beam and perform a large number of experiments to help us understand the implications of FLASH radiation that we simply could not have done with a more traditional research set-up.'

His team are already beginning to optimize how they would use this down the road for clinical trials.

This includes taking the necessary steps to translate the ability from the research room to a clinical space, as well as designing a delivery system for FLASH in humans.

Proton therapy is so highly targeted it can avoid healthy tissue - particularly organs behind the tumour.

Radiotherapy can lead to side effects such as nausea and can sometimes disrupt how some organs function.

This means it's effective for treating cancer that affects critical areas, such as brain cancer.

There were 17 million new cases of cancer worldwide in 2018. The four most common types occurring are those of the lung, breast, bowel and prostate gland.

These four account for more than four in ten of all cancers diagnosed. Globally there will be 27.5 million new cases of cancer each year by 2040.