* Compact systems opens up new market for smaller clinics
* Cost is key barrier to take-up of proton therapy
* IBA could revise up sales guidance after 2014
* Proton therapy’s key advantage is fewer side-effects
By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Belgian radiology company IBA sees 2014 as a year of major transition which could lead to an acceleration of sales of its cancer-fighting proton therapy systems.
The global market leader has been selling its systems to major hospitals and clinics for more than a decade, but has been hampered by the scale of the investment required for each facility and recently launched a more compact product, called Proteus ONE.
Protons are superior to the photons emitted in traditional radiotherapy principally because they do far less damage to healthy tissue surrounding tumours.
Due to their relatively large mass, protons scatter less and so focus more on the cancerous cells, and can also deliver their maximum energy at that point. They have been used particularly in cancers of the brain, the eye and for children, whose bodies are still growing.
IBA says the new compact offering should expand its potential market beyond just the premier hospitals and clinics in big cities that can afford a multi-room centre.
Its earlier Proteus PLUS system typically consisted of three to four treatment rooms and required a total investment of $100 million or more. The cost for the new single-room units equipped with Proteus ONE is around $25 million.
The Belgium-based company has an annual target of 8-12 proton therapy room orders, but Chief Executive Olivier Legrain said developments next year could lead to an upward revision.
The company expects to secure approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for Proteus ONE in 2014 and for its first such system, at the Willis-Knighton Cancer Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, to start treating patients.
Legrain said in an interview late Wednesday that both events should help pull in new orders to add to the three Proteus ONE systems sold to date.
In August, the Netherlands approved the granting of up to four licences to use proton therapy there and the UK government offered 250 million pounds of funding to build two facilities in Britain.
Legrain said it was too early to revise its 8-12 room guidance but said that, in 2014, IBA would have a better understanding of where other countries stood on proton therapy, along with more acceptance in the United States.
“Then I think it will be time for us, with all this new information, potentially to give a new guidance.”
Currently, proton therapy treats about 1 percent of all patients receiving radiotherapy, but independent studies believe that could rise to 15 percent, with the overall radiotherapy market rising by some 5-7 percent per year.
Legrain said a further trigger for market growth would be an increase in publication of results from centres already using IBA’s proton therapy systems.
“When you treat a head and neck with photons, most of the people are losing swallowing capacity because of the toxicity sometimes for a few months, sometimes for ever,” said Legrain.
“With proton therapy not only do you not lose the swallowing capacity, but you keep your taste across the treatment.”
Legrain said sales of the larger Proteus PLUS systems, which can treat far more patients, should not be undermined by the cheaper compact alternative and should hold fairly steady.
IBA says it currently has a narrow majority of the market in proton systems and believes it can stay ahead of rivals including Hitachi, Mitsubishi Electric and Varian Medical Systems.
IBA argues its systems are technologically superior and that it has a shorter lead time on average of two years and highly reliable systems that generate minimal downtime.
“Time is money. By delivering in 24 months we make it much cheaper than our competitors. Every month, the value is $500,000,” Legrain said. (Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Patrick Graham)