Medical centers have built proton centers around the country -- they cost about $150 million each, Chen said -- and have tried to convince patients to undergo the therapy.
In the new study, researchers examined the medical records of nearly 13,000 men who received conformal radiation, IMRT or proton therapy for prostate cancer that hadn't spread.
The investigators found that patients who received IMRT, compared to conformal therapy, were 9 percent less likely to have gastrointestinal side effects and 22 percent less likely to have the rare side effect of hip fracture; they were also 19 percent less likely to need more cancer treatment.
On the other hand, IMRT patients were 12 percent more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction, the findings showed.
The design of the study didn't allow the researchers to determine the specific likelihood that a patient would suffer from these side effects or need more treatment.
The researchers also compared IMRT to proton therapy. Those who received IMRT had a 34 percent lower risk of gastrointestinal side effects.
Proton therapy costs about $50,000 per patient, roughly twice as much as IMRT, study co-author Chen said.
But the new treatment does have its supporters. In a statement released Tuesday, Dr. Eugen Hug, medical director and chief medical officer of ProCure Treatment Centers, took issue with the findings. He said the UNC study "is firmly contradicted by a number of well-regarded, peer-reviewed studies that found protons reduce -- not increase -- gastrointestinal side effects."
According to Hug, "the UNC study runs counter to what we know from these studies, from research being carried out by ProCure and other proton centers and from our firsthand experience treating hundreds of patients with this important cancer therapy."
Hug also pointed to prior prospective studies (which follow patients over time) that he said support the superiority of proton therapy. "
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