A giant machine that can treat cancer patients by zapping their tumors with subatomic particles will be built in Singapore.
The proton therapy device - the first of its kind in the region - will measure about half the size of a football field. Costing S$100 million (US$80 million), it will be Southeast Asia's most expensive medical machine.
The National Cancer Centre Singapore announced yesterday that it plans to start building the device, which will help children with cancer and patients with tumors in hard-to-reach areas such as the brain, spinal cord and eye.
Proton therapy destroys cancer cells with beams of positively charged subatomic particles, as opposed to the X-rays used in conventional radiation treatment.
It delivers high doses of radiation accurately to the tumor while avoiding the healthy tissue surrounding it. This is especially significant for children, as the risk of developing a second bout of cancer and other side effects such as growth and mental retardation are reduced greatly.
There are also fewer short- and long-term side effects than with X-ray therapy.
Treatment, which is non-invasive and painless, is performed on an outpatient basis.
Those who qualify for government subsidies will pay about S$13,000 for 15- to 30-minute sessions over six weeks. The cost is the same as that for image-guided radiotherapy, a form of treatment currently available to patients.
Centre director Professor Soo Khee Chee said the facility will be able to treat about 1,000 people a year. About 15 per cent of its current 5,000 radiotherapy patients could be suitable for the treatment.
Proton therapy is also useful for treating liver cancer, the fourth most common form of the disease among Singaporean men.
The machine does not render other forms of cancer therapy obsolete. For instance, X-ray therapy will continue to be used where high doses of radiation are unnecessary. A committee of specialists will determine whether patients are suitable for proton treatment.
Soo said: "This is a major milestone for Singapore as proton beam therapy is the cutting edge in radiation treatment."
There are 39 such facilities worldwide, some of which are in Japan, South Korea and the United States. Singapore's proton therapy facility will be located at the cancer center’s new building at the Outram Campus. It is scheduled for completion in 2017.
The cancer centre, a non-profit organization, is currently raising funds for the project.