Toward A variable RBE for proton beam therapy

Henning Willers*, Antino Allen, David Grosshans, Stephen J. McMahon, Cläre von Neubeck, Claudia Wiese, Bhadrasain Vikram

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Citations (Scopus)
291 Downloads (Pure)


In the clinic, proton beam therapy (PBT) is based on the use of a generic relative biological effectiveness (RBE) of 1.1 compared to photons in human cancers and normal tissues. However, the experimental basis for this RBE lacks any significant number of representative tumor models and clinically relevant endpoints for dose-limiting organs at risk. It is now increasingly appreciated that much of the variations of treatment responses in cancers are due to inter-tumoral genomic heterogeneity. Indeed, recently it has been shown that defects in certain DNA repair pathways, which are found in subsets of many cancers, are associated with a RBE increase in vitro. However, there currently exist little in vivo or clinical data that confirm the existence of similarly increased RBE values in human cancers. Furthermore, evidence for variable RBE values for normal tissue toxicity has been sparse and conflicting to date. If we could predict variable RBE values in patients, we would be able to optimally use and personalize PBT. For example, predictive tumor biomarkers may facilitate selection of patients with proton-sensitive cancers previously ineligible for PBT. Dose de-escalation may be possible to reduce normal tissue toxicity, especially in pediatric patients. Knowledge of increased tumor RBE may allow us to develop biologically optimized therapies to enhance local control while RBE biomarkers for normal tissues could lead to a better understanding and prevention of unusual PBT-associated toxicity. Here, we will review experimental data on the repair of proton damage to DNA that impact both RBE values and biophysical modeling to predict RBE variations. Experimental approaches for studying proton sensitivity in vitro and in vivo will be reviewed as well and recent clinical findings discussed. Ultimately, therapeutically exploiting the understudied biological advantages of protons and developing approaches to limit treatment toxicity should fundamentally impact the clinical use of PBT.

Original languageEnglish
JournalRadiotherapy and Oncology
Early online date14 Jun 2018
Publication statusEarly online date - 14 Jun 2018


  • Carbon ions
  • DNA repair
  • Protons
  • Relative biological effectiveness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hematology
  • Oncology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging


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