Ashya King: NHS ignored offers of cut-price therapy at Czech Proton clinic

Prague centre tried for two years to talk to health officials – without any response

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The cancer centre in the Czech Republic where the parents of Aysha King want to send their son for treatment has tried repeatedly over two years to make contact with NHS officials over the possibility of offering cut-price proton radiotherapy for British patients who would otherwise have to travel to the US, The Independent can disclose.

The Proton Therapy Centre in Prague, which has state-of-the-art facilities for treating difficult tumours, said that it has received no response at all from the NHS. This was despite repeated attempts to make contact with the office of Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, about the possibility of sending patients to the Czech Republic.

Vaclav Lastovka, one of the co-founders of the proton centre, said that he could treat British patients for less than half the price of the treatment offered by American proton centres, but has not received any meaningful response from NHS England despite repeated phone calls, emails and letters.

“We have made an offer to the NHS to treat British children with proton radiation  for two and half times less than the cost of treatment in the US. We can treat children from the UK now and nobody has to wait until the UK has its own proton therapy centres,” Mr Lastovka told The Independent through an interpreter.

“If I worked for the NHS and had a child with cancer, I would want to be able to have proton therapy and not only conventional radiotherapy. This is not just about one patient or child, there are many more who would benefit from this kind of therapy,” he said.

Aysha King, the five-year-old boy with a brain tumour, is now likely to go the the Proton Therapy Centre in Prague after doctors at Southampton General Hospital indicated that they would support the treatment, even though they believe there are no great benefits over conventional radiotherapy.

Proponents of proton therapy say that the treatment produces fewer side-effects to the healthy tissue surrounding the tumour compared with conventional radiotherapy. This is especially important for brain tumours in children, where radiotherapy using X-rays or gamma-rays causes irreparable long-term damage to intellectual development.

Britain does not yet have its own high-energy proton centres but plans to build two, one in Manchester and one in London, by 2018. In the meantime, a relatively small number of cancer patients – 122 in 2013 – are sent abroad, mostly to the US, if they qualify for treatment.

The average cost of proton treatment abroad is about £75,000, according to NHS England, but the price of proton therapy in the US is much higher, at over £100,000 plus travel and accomodation costs for the family.

“We have focused on the small price we charge in comparison with the US and each time they [the NHS] has refused to communicate with us,” said Pavel Lastovka, who, with his brother Vaclav, raised more than £100m needed to build the proton centre in Prague.

“At first they said we are on a list of approved suppliers but in the end we gave up because we didn’t see the end of it and we had a lot of self-payers [patients who cover their own treatment costs privately] from England and they were quite happy with the treatment they got,” Pavel Lastovka said.

A spokesman for NHS England said: "The NHS has secured adequate capacity in established high quality international proton beam treatment centres.  These have been carefully selected by expert British cancer doctors because they deliver the full package of care our patients need.

"We are always open to discussion and we have in fact had helpful discussions with this private clinic in the Czech Republic about the quality of services they provide - it is quite simply untrue and wrong to say we have ignored them.

"Any decisions made for future NHS patients will be made by NHS doctors on the basis of quality of care, not bargain prices.  We note that this particular clinic provides only proton beam therapy and is not a specialist wide ranging cancer centre."