The days of people with cancer undergoing weeks of radiation therapy may one day be relegated to the medical dustbin given early findings from research into a new method of delivering radiation in less than a second.

Researchers from the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania have reported their preliminary success with a cutting-edge technology that could deliver what is known as FLASH radiotherapy in an extremely short period of time. The researchers’ findings were published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, and Physics.

Typically, people with cancer receive radiation over the course of several weeks. The FLASH system relies on proton radiation to deliver a dose of radiation that, at least in theory, could provide comparable results.

In the research team’s experiments, FLASH had the same effect on pancreatic tumors derived from mice as traditional radiation treatment. What’s more, the vastly diminished treatment time proved less toxic to healthy tissues.

“This is the first time anyone has published findings that demonstrate the feasibility of using protons—rather than electrons—to generate FLASH doses, with an accelerator currently used for clinical treatments,” the study’s co–senior author James M. Metz, MD, chair of radiation oncology at the Abramson Cancer Center, said in a press release.


Although other scientists have attempted to deliver such a high level of radiation in an extremely short period of time using electrons, such experiments have not succeeded in penetrating the body deeply enough to be effective against malignant tumors.


Nor have researchers using conventional photons had the success seen in this new study. A big problem is that today’s devices are not capable of delivering a high enough dose of such radiation to be effective.


The authors of the new paper made technical modifications to the machines used to deliver the FLASH therapy. They also developed tools to assess the efficacy of their experimental treatment—to measure the radiation doses accurately.

“We’ve been able to develop specialized systems in the research room to generate FLASH doses, demonstrate that we can control the proton beam and perform a large number of experiments to help us understand the implications of FLASH radiation that we simply could not have done with a more traditional research setup,” Metz said.

To read a press release about the study, click here.

To read the study abstract, click here.