New Shanghai cancer clinic puts city on leading radiotherapy edge

A newly opened centre puts the city on the leading edge of radiotherapy but the bill for treatment will be much bigger than traditional methods

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 5:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 10:41am

Cancer patients in Shanghai will soon have access to the world's most advanced radiotherapy equipment, offering recipients shorter and pain-free treatment. But the therapy is still in its early days and will come at a hefty cost.

The Shanghai Proton and Heavy Ion Centre will be the world's third such medical centre to install both proton and heavy ion treatment equipment, which enables patients to avoid the disadvantages of traditional radiotherapy. The other centres are in Germany and Japan.

Dr Jiang Guoliang, director of the hospital's technology board, said proton and heavy ion therapy was the world's most advanced radiotherapy treatment.

"It can achieve much better results than traditional radiotherapy, which uses light ions," Jiang said. "What's more, proton and heavy ion treatment can be used on patients who are unsuitable for traditional radiotherapy or on whom it has failed."

Dr Eugen Hug, president of Particle Therapy Cooperative Group, said the therapy delivered radiation more precisely to tumours, so that other body parts received less unnecessary radiation. "We get more cures. Because we are more precise and give less radiation to the normal tissues surrounding the cancer cells, we see much fewer side effects," Hug said.

About 125,000 patients are receiving or have received such treatment from about 30 centres worldwide, but these use only one of the particle types.

Hug said the therapy was "prominent" in treating children and adults with cancers in their neck, brain, prostate, spine and lungs, among others.

The new 230-bed hospital in Pudong district was heavily backed by the municipal government. The fledgling facility is a priority for the city, with party secretary Han Zheng leading a delegation to the Japanese National Institute of Radiological Sciences in 2012 and inspecting the Shanghai facility in June.

Jiang said the hospital had been very cautious in selecting its first patients. "We have doctors trained abroad and … there are German and Japanese experts here to make sure there are no errors," he said. "We will submit our clinical test assessment report to the China Food and Drug Administration, and with their thumbs-up, we will officially open the hospital."

Jiang said particle therapy would not cause patients any pain and would shorten their treatment periods to just several weeks. But he admitted the treatment was expensive. It costs about three million yen (HK$228,000) in Japan and US$80,000 in the United States.

"The price [at the Shanghai centre] hasn't been decided yet … But, of course, it won't be cheap and it's also highly likely that it won't be covered by the public medical insurance scheme," he said.

Hug said the cost of particle therapy would probably fall as more centres were built around the world. The cost now was about a third of what it was a decade ago, he said. Another upside of such therapy, however, was that patients did not have to spend as many days in hospital as those who underwent traditional radiotherapy, Hug said. Some could even return to work after the treatment, helping patients manage its cost, he said.

Some 10,000 cancer patients had radiotherapy in Shanghai each year, Jiang said. The city sees about 50,000 new cancer patients annually and more than 30,000 die from their disease every year.

Dr Yu Wenbin, a surgeon at Beijing Cancer Hospital's head and neck tumour department, said the idea of using proton and heavy ion therapy was proposed several decades ago but had yet to gain wide usage because of high costs. Existing technologies were also not mature enough to enable broad application and no treatment guidelines were available.

"This therapy is basically still at the stage of clinical research and needs improvement," Yu said. "I'm not sure if there'll be plenty of patients visiting this new hospital, as they may be deterred by the bills or concerned about being treated as lab rats."