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Ion beam irradiation: unparralleled precision and effectiveness

At the Heidelberg Ion-Beam Therapy Center (HIT), tumors are treated with a kind of radiation that is different than conventional radiotherapy ­– ion-beam radiation. Ions are charged particles – therefore this kind of radiation is also called particle therapy. Ion-beam radiation consists of either protons or heavy ions.

  • Protons are the positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms from which the electron shell has been removed.

  • Heavy ions are the positively charged nuclei of atoms with a larger mass minus the electron shell. They are much heavier than protons.  

  • The heavy ions used at HIT are carbon, oxygen, and helium ions.

  • The HIT is the only clinical therapy center in the world that uses both proton and heavy ion radiation.


In conventional radiotherapy, which has been used for many years in treating tumors with great success, X-rays or gamma rays are used, which consist of tiny particles of light called photons. Therefore conventional radiotherapy is also known as photon radiation. But there are tumors that are almost completely insensitive to photons. And for tumors located deep inside the body or next to tissue or organs that are very sensitive to radiation such as the brain stem, optic nerve, or bowel, conventional radiotherapy reaches its natural limits – it is not possible to administer a sufficiently high dosage of radiation without damaging the adjacent tissue. In cases such as this, ion-beam radiation is clearly superior.


On the following pages, the physical advantages of proton and heavy ion radiation and the biological advantages of heavy ion radiation are explained in detail.

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