What began as a loose prototype using an office swivel chair has evolved into a novel way to deliver radiotherapy to cancer patients.

Currently, radiotherapy patients lie down on a flat table while a heavy moving gantry rotates a radiation source around them to direct radiotherapy onto the affected part of the body. As a result, radiotherapy facilities require a lot of complex machinery and radiation screening, making them very large and costly to build.

UK start-up Leo Cancer Care has come up with a new, very simple, approach: move the patient not the radiotherapy source.

Named after the Nobel prize-winning physicist Marie Curie, the Marie™ device sits patients upright and slowly rotates them while they undergo CT scanning followed by beams of radiation delivered from a fixed source. The technology is currently available for proton beam therapy and is also being developed for standard X-ray (photon) therapy.

By sitting up rather than lying down, gravity allows the internal organs to fall more naturally into place and there is less movement and effort when breathing, reducing the chances of damaging healthy tissue. This is particularly important when treating cancers in and around the lungs, prostate, head, neck and breast, where an upright posture can help improve accuracy, minimise side effects and lead to better clinical outcomes.

As well as being a quarter of the size and much less costly than conventional proton beam radiotherapy facilities, Leo’s seated device is more comfortable for patients and helps them feel more in control during their treatment.

“If you need to change a lightbulb, you don’t hold the lightbulb and rotate the house. We’re applying that simple concept to modern radiation therapy,” explains Leo Cancer Care CEO Stephen Towe.

“We’ve found this upright position allows for better cardiovascular function as well as more consistent breathing, among other benefits. But, beyond the clinical benefits, we think patients should be empowered to be upright looking eye-to-eye with their care provider, taking on cancer together,” he adds.

The company is currently working with one of France’s leading cancer hospitals, where dozens of patients have experienced this game-changing upright patient positioning technology as part of an ongoing research agreement.

Leo Cancer Care is part of £48m deal struck to provide the world’s first Leo Cancer Care upright proton beam therapy system to a US integrated healthcare system in Wisconsin. It will be deployed as part of a huge investment in a state-of-the-art cancer care centre, due to begin treating patients in 2024.

These upright radiotherapy devices could also help reduce backlogs in cancer care in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leo Cancer Care is seeking regulatory approval, and the technology is currently being explored by the NHS.

Leo’s devices could even be placed together with an X-ray radiotherapy source in a mobile truck, making treatment more accessible to patients in remote locations and where there is still relatively little infrastructure to treat cancers that would benefit from radiotherapy.

Professor Thomas ‘Rock’ Mackie is chairman and co-founder of Leo Cancer Care, and an ASTRO Gold Medal-winning radiation oncology researcher. He said: “I look forward to seeing our Marie device enable many more people around the world to access upright radiotherapy and the benefits that it can bring.”