In Depth

Ashya King 'cured of cancer' by treatment denied on the NHS

Five-year old is now cancer-free after receiving proton beam therapy in the Czech Republic, say his parents

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Ashya King, whose disappearance from hospital last year sparked an international manhunt, has made a "miracle" recovery from brain cancer, his parents have said.

The five-year old had been receiving proton beam therapy – a special form of radiation used to treat some cancers – in the Czech Republic, after doctors in the UK said he was not eligible for the treatment.

His father Brett said that a recent scan showed "no evidence" of the brain tumour. "It's incredible news. We are absolutely delighted," he told The Sun.

He said that Ashya's recovery had finally "justified" their actions. "If we had left Ashya with the NHS we don't think he would have survived. We have saved his life."

Last year, Brett and Naghemeh King removed their son from Southampton General Hospital after doctors refused to offer him the expensive therapy, and travelled to Spain.  

Police then launched an international search for the pair, warning that Ashya's life could be in danger. His parents were arrested in Madrid on charges of child cruelty, but they were later released and Hampshire police were criticised for their "heavy-handed" response. 

The family expressed their anger that the police had portrayed them as "kidnappers", turned them into refugees and denied them access to their son.

Once they were released, the family travelled to Prague, where Ashya has undergone months of intensive treatment. He is now recovering in the family's holiday home in Spain.

"We could not sleep before we got this news — now we are so full of hope for the future. We are jumping up and down with joy. It is a miracle we thought we would never see," said his mother.

Proton beam therapy: Ashya King starts treatment in Prague

15 Septmber 2014

Ashya King, the young child with cancer whose disappearance from a UK hospital sparked an international manhunt, is about to begin a course of proton beam therapy at a specialist hospital in the Czech Republic.

His parents took him to Spain last month against medical advice after doctors said he was not eligible for the brain cancer treatment. They were arrested and held in prison until charges of child neglect were dropped and the family was reunited.

The five-year old will undergo up to 30 separate treatments at the Proton Therapy Centre in Prague. His doctors say his condition has a 70 to 80 per cent survival rate and they have "every reason to hope that he will make a full recovery," AP reports. 

But what is the highly sought-after treatment and why was the King family forced to travel abroad so Ashya could receive it?

What is proton beam therapy? 

It is a form of radiotherapy used to treat certain cancers. Instead of x-rays, the treatment involves the use of highly accelerated protons, a type of sub-atomic particle, to target and kill cancerous cells.

What are its advantages?

Proton beams stop once they have destroyed specific cells and do not continue to pass through the body, affecting healthy cells too. The surrounding tissue therefore suffers less damage. The treatment also causes fewer side-effects than conventional radiotherapy.

And disadvantages?

Cancer Research UK warns that the treatment should not be seen as a "magic bullet" as it still carries risks and uncertainties as well as being extremely expensive.

Healthcare experts in the UK say that as the treatment is relatively new and only given in rare cases because there is not enough evidence that it is as effective at killing cancerous cells as conventional radiotherapy.

The NHS says it simply "cannot say with any conviction that proton beam therapy is 'better' overall than radiotherapy".

When is proton beam therapy used? 

The treatment is used when it is critical to reduce damage to healthy tissue and vital organs, particularly in brain cancers in young people where their brains are still developing. It is also used to treat cancers in adults when they occur near vital areas such as the optic nerve.

However, according to the NHS "these types of cancer make up a very small proportion of all cancer diagnoses", and it is not recommended in the majority of cases. Cancer Research UK estimates that proton beam therapy would only be suitable for one per cent of all cancer patients. 

Why was it not given to Ashya? 

Proton beam therapy is generally not available on the NHS. There is only one proton beam machine in the UK, at a hospital in Merseyside, but it is low-energy  and therefore not effective at treating brain cancers.

Two new high-energy proton beam centres are being built in London and Manchester and are expected to be completed by 2018. Until then, patients can be referred for treatment abroad, but only if they fulfil strict diagnostic criteria.

Dr Peter Wilson, lead paediatrician at Southampton general hospital told The Guardian that the therapy was not recommended for Ashya as x-ray radiation would still be necessary to treat other parts of his body. "For this particular tumour, the reason why the proton beam was not deemed to be of any benefit is because you have to irradiate most of the brain and spine anyway," he said.

Ashya King: parents freed from Spanish prison

3 September

Brett and Naghemeh King have been released from Spanish prison after prosecutors in the UK dropped child cruelty charges against them due to 'insufficient evidence'.

The Kings will be reunited with five-year-old Ashya later today. "We will go to see my son as soon as possible," Mr King told reporters, after being released from prison in Madrid. "We have been dying to see his face for so long."

A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service told the BBC the charges were dropped because "we consider there is insufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction for any criminal offence".

The decision by the CPS follows calls from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and other senior politicians for the family to be reunited.

An international manhunt across the UK, France and Spain was launched last week after the Kings took Ashya, who is seriously ill with stage four cancer, out of a Southampton hospital against medical advice.

They travelled to Spain to sell an apartment to fund treatment for Ashya that is not routinely offered in the UK. A clinic in the Czech Republic has now said it is prepared to offer Ashya the proton beam treatment the NHS would not give him. Sky News reports that his doctors in the UK are willing to refer him there.  

David Cameron welcomed their release, tweeting: "It's important this little boy gets treatment and the love of his family."

A Downing Street spokesperson told the BBC that the Home Office is expected to launch an inquiry into Hampshire police's handling of the case, following criticism of their "heavy-handed" actions. Southampton General Hospital has also begun an internal inquiry into the case.

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