Japan leads the way for cancer therapy

Responding to growing worldwide demand, Japanese manufactures have been at the forefront of developing new types of cancer radiation therapy.

Particle-beam radiotherapy uses technology that can accelerate the irradiation of proton or carbon-ion beams on cancer cells to almost light speed. Compared with conventional X-ray radiotherapy, the new method can target a tumor with minimum damage to the surrounding tissue.

X-rays are at their most powerful near the surface and weaken as they move inside the body. However, they run the risk of damaging healthy organs as they pass through to malignant tissue. Particle-beam therapy systems can increase the level of precision using the distribution characteristics of the radiation dose absorbed by the body.

Importantly, the new treatment carries a smaller physical and financial burden on the patient, meaning it can be used by outpatients. As of April, particle-beam radiotherapy for certain types of cancers has been covered by Japan’s national health insurance.

Japan has been a pioneer in the field of heavy-ion beam technology. Mitsubishi Electric, Hitachi and Toshiba are the world’s only manufactures of treatment systems based on heavy-ion beams.

The National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo, introduced a heavy-ion beam system in 1994 — the first particle-beam therapy system operating in Japan.

Last year, Toshiba became the first company to independently provide a heavy-ion radiotherapy system to the Kanagawa Cancer Center in Yokohama, southeast of the capital. The system began operation in December.

Although heavy-ion beams can cause greater damage to cancer cells, global demand for proton-beam therapy systems is growing more rapidly due to the smaller size and lower installation cost.

Hitachi, keen to meet that demand, won an order from the National Cancer Center Singapore earlier this year. The first proton-beam therapy system in Southeast Asia will be installed in the hospital’s new research and treatment facility slated for opening in 2021.

Hitachi has installed four proton-beam therapy systems in the U.S., and another is currently under construction. The manufacturer has also received an order from a major general hospital in Hong Kong. Hitachi’s unique technology, which can trace the shape of malignant cells, allows the system to apply the proton beam precisely to the tumor. According to the company, it has received inquiries from medical centers in various countries, including in the Middle East.

Sumitomo Heavy Industries has supplied proton-beam therapy systems in Taiwan and South Korea. Mitsubishi Electric, which has the largest share of the Japanese market, has an eye on expanding overseas, too. With about 15 medical centers in Japan using the particle-beam radiotherapy systems, domestic players are shifting their focus abroad.

Japan is also the front-runner in efforts to commercialize another form of particle-beam radiation treatment called boron neutron capture therapy, or BNCT. The method is capable of applying neutron beams solely to cancer cells, by localizing the tumor with an injected chemical agent.

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