Using a Beam of Protons to Treat Lymphoma

therapy for lymphoma

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Radiation therapy is important in treating many different types of cancer. A variety of different forms of radiation are used to try to target malignant cells and tissues. Most commonly, photons (x-rays) are used in a technique called external beam radiation therapy, or EBRT.

There are also a variety of newer radiation therapy techniques, and some of them have shown promise in more effectively targeting the cancerous tissue while sparing surrounding structures.

Newer Techniques Include Proton Beams and 4D Simulation

  • PBT refers to proton beam therapy.
  • 3D conformal EBRT refers to the involvement of computerized imaging analysis to plan the delivery of the dose of radiation more precisely to its target.
  • IMRT stands for intensity modulated radiation therapy, and this is another technique designed to destroy cancerous tissue but spare the surrounding tissue.
  • IGRT stands for image-guided radiation therapy, and it involves using imaging scans during the course of radiation treatment, to direct radiation to the actual imaging coordinates that were developed during the treatment planning phase of radiation therapy.
  • RMM refers to respiratory motion management systems in radiotherapies that account for the movement of the chest wall, diaphragm muscle, and other structures that move during breathing so that the radiation still gets to the right spot even though the target area is moving. 
  • 4D CT simulation makes use of the same principle as in RMM in that the scan is acquired while the patient breathes, and the targeted volume takes into account all positions of the tumor during the imaging study, over time.

What Is Proton Beam Therapy?

Some cancer centers are beginning to use radiation machines that deliver proton beams instead of photons, or x-rays. Proton beams are a stream of positively charged particles that deliver energy within a short distance. In theory, protons may reach tumors deep within the body with less harm to nearby tissues.

Organizations such as the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, or NCCN, are beginning to incorporate proton beam therapy, or PBT, in guidelines and recommendations. For instance, in regard to certain cases of peripheral T-cell lymphomas, the NCCN radiotherapy compendium includes a reference to protons and other newer techniques to "...achieve [a] highly conformal dose distribution important for curative patients with long life expectancies." In other words, there is an expectation that delivering the radiation to a tightly prescribed area and sparing the surrounding tissue will result in better outcomes and fewer long-term complications of radiation therapy.


So far, the routine use of PBT is not recommended in the treatment of lymphoma. For patients with lymphoma, however, a technique such as a proton therapy might someday be preferred to photons in certain cases and for a variety of reasons. Although effective, chemotherapy used to treat lymphomas can have some toxicity to both the heart and the lungs. When radiation is added to chemotherapy, the risks to healthy organs may be increased, since the tissues at risk are sensitive to both the effects of the chemotherapy and the radiation.

Chemotherapy and radiation are often planned together, but they are administered separately, and often, one will follow the other in the treatment of lymphoma. Proton therapy is designed to reduce the exposure to healthy tissues that may occur in targeting the malignancy. Many patients with lymphoma are younger when diagnosed and live long lives after treatment, so they are at risk for late-emerging, long-term side effects associated with standard therapies.

Based on what is known about proton therapy, many believe side effects will be reduced compared to conventional therapy. Doctors and researchers are also working on the chemotherapy side of the equation, exploring the use of newer agents with fewer side effects, looking to any impact on long-term outcomes and late side effects.

Patients with Hodgkin lymphoma, in particular, have high cure rates, but they also tend to develop treatment side effects from chemotherapy and radiation. In fact, childhood Hodgkin lymphoma survivors are one of the groups at most risk for severe or life-threatening chronic health conditions, such as second cancer or heart disease. These increased risks are believed due at least in part to the late effects of chemotherapy and from radiotherapy. 

Because proton therapy is designed to be more precise in delivering radiation, the hope is that less heart disease and fewer second cancers will develop. So far, in one study, the incidence of second cancers among those treated with proton versus photon radiation appeared to be similar, but data are limited and more research is needed.

A Word From Verywell

Oncologists who support the use of proton therapy for Hodgkin lymphoma have described a balancing act that is performed, between relapse due to inadequate therapy on the one hand and severe late toxicities from overly aggressive treatment on the other.

Some say that if you increased the chemotherapy to offset for not having radiation therapy, you would likely not make any gains in terms of long-term toxicities. Additionally, they advise that freedom from the second relapse of lymphoma is an important outcome to keep tabs on, as researchers in the future try to sort out the risks and benefits of newer approaches.

According to a study by Hoppe and colleagues, proton therapy provided lower overall radiation doses to the heart, lungs, breasts, esophagus, and other structures for the vast majority of study participants with Hodgkin lymphoma. Only time will tell if proton therapy will become increasingly routine.

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Article Sources

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  • Chung CS, Yock TI, Nelson K, Xu Y, Keating NL, Tarbell NJ. The incidence of second malignancies among patients treated with proton versus photon radiation. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2013;87(1):46-52.
  • Hoppe BS, Flampouri S, Su Z, et al. Effective dose reduction to cardiac structures using protons compared with 3DCRT and IMRT in mediastinal Hodgkin lymphoma. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys 2012;84:449-455. 
  • NCCN Radiation Therapy Compendium. 2017.