The Leuven Particle Therapy Interuniversity Center (ParTICLe), Belgium’s first proton therapy centre, is being built on UZ Leuven’s Gasthuisberg Health Sciences Campus. Proton therapy is an innovative form of radiotherapy that inflicts less damage on healthy tissue. Two underground bunkers, in which treatments and research will take place, must meet extremely stringent safety and radioprotection requirements so their construction and design can achieve top technological performance. ParTICLe is the fruit of clinical and scientific collaboration between five university hospitals and their network hospitals. This is a first in Belgium, as is structural collaboration across its language border. ParTICLe will treat its first patients in Belgium in mid-2019.
Proton therapy irradiates tumours in a highly targeted way, thus inflicting less damage on healthy tissue. Throughout the world, its use is on the rise in the treatment of cancer patients for whom precise irradiation is crucial, including children and adults whose cancer threatens vital organs such as the brain. Today, patients who are candidates for proton therapy have to go abroad, most often to Heidelberg (Germany) and Zurich (Switzerland). Belgian authorities provide compensation for the cost of treatment, but travel expenses can be a heavy burden on patients. In mid-2019, patients in Belgium will be able to receive treatment in Leuven. An estimated 150 to 200 patients per year in Belgium are proton therapy candidates. This number could grow if new indications for proton therapy are defined based on clinical scientific studies.
Full-time research centre
The new proton therapy centre will have two separate parts: one bunker for the clinical treatment of patients and another for high-tech research. Each bunker will be equipped with a particle accelerator or cyclotron. Thus ParTICLe will be one step ahead of other proton therapy centres in Europe, which only have one cyclotron and thus have to conduct their research evenings and weekends, when patients are not being treated. Thanks to two cyclotrons installed in two separate spaces, Leuven researchers will be able to conduct research all the time. This research will focus at first on refining proton beams and aligning imagery, such as CT scans, and proton irradiation.
Such collaboration, between five university hospitals on either side of the language border, is unprecedented in Belgium. UZ Leuven, KU Leuven, Saint-Luc University Hospital and UCL are investing in the new research and treatment centre in collaboration with UZ Gent, UZ Antwerpen and UZ Brussel. Exchanges with other non-university hospitals in Flanders and Wallonia will extend the new centre’s reach: via networks emanating from the five university hospitals, ParTICLe will reach 80% of the country’s radiotherapy centres. So even if the patient has to travel to Leuven for proton irradiation, his or her doctor will remain closely involved.
Public authorities support a well-equipped proton therapy centre in Belgium. At the 28 April 2017 official presentation of the centre, Ministers Maggie De Block, Philippe Muyters and Jo Vandeurzen explained why they attach such importance to innovation and collaboration in the medical field.
On the Gasthuisberg Health Sciences Campus, the new centre will be located near the current radio-oncology service, the radiology department, the medical imaging research centre and the nuclear medicine department. The proton therapy machines will be delivered and installed by IBA, the technology’s market leader. The building will be architecturally impressive. Despite being underground, the bunkers will be naturally illuminated via courtyards and roofed by garden terraces. Meanwhile, the building will adhere to extremely stringent safety and radioprotection standards to achieve top performance.
Total cost for the buildings and irradiation machines is €45 million. The Flemish Department of Science, Economics and Innovation is investing €5 million. Federal authorities have promised to use funds that currently compensate patient travel for treatments abroad to reimburse ParTICLe treatments. Saint-Luc University Hospital and UCL are responsible for €6 million, much of which will come from fundraising. UZ Leuven and KU Leuven are responsible for other investment costs.
Professor and UCL Rector Vincent Blondel says, ‘This proton therapy centre will combine cutting-edge medical and engineering expertise to help save cancer patients, including children. It’s an outstanding example of how the university serves society.’
UZ Leuven Head of Radio-oncology Dr Karin Haustermans says, ‘Despite the tremendous technical progress in cancer patient irradiation, we still see too many relapses and persistent side effects. Sometimes, healthy tissue sensitive to irradiation is too close to the tumour and it’s almost impossible to irradiate without endangering the patient’s life. Proton therapy is synonymous with significant protection of healthy tissue and also reduces the risk of new cancer provoked by the irradiation itself.’
UZ Leuven Managing Director Dr Marc Decramer says, ‘We consider it our responsibility to play a key role in this project. In 1928, in Leuven, we built the first cancer institute in Belgium with the support of its people. Some 90 years later, we’re taking another step forward: we’re investing across the language border and in collaboration with university and regional hospitals in high-tech cancer therapy. This collaborative endeavour aligns perfectly with the vision of Minister De Block, who is calling for the establishment of an extensive hospital network. Collaboration is a partnership which we see throughout the clinical and scientific realms. Sharing financial costs and scientific knowledge is the best way to broaden our horizons.’