GROUND-BREAKING technology which could transform cancer care for patients across the UK could be built in the Highlands.
Designers want to set up Scotland’s first manufacturing and treatment base for the world’s most advanced radiotherapy machines – in Inverness.
A small Highland-based engineering firm has developed a smaller and more efficient version of the huge 90-tonne advanced proton beam therapy machines being fitted beneath NHS hospitals in Manchester and London as part of a £250 million UK Government investment.
And the pioneer behind the plan, Steve Hunt, director of the Elgin-based engineering company called Alceli, insists his machines can treat patients at a fifth of the price - and Thai investors are talking about investing $300 million to build and lease the machines to hospitals.
The kit – hailed as a cancer treatment milestone – kills tumours without damaging surrounding tissue and could be available locally to treat people from Sutherland and all over the Highlands at Raigmore Hospital or another location - if all goes to plan.
It is particularly effective for brain cancer cases and children, who are still growing and more vulnerable to the long-term side effects of radiation exposure.
However, Mr Hunt fears it could be scuppered by a lack of help from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).
The engineer, who relocated his firm from Thailand to Moray last year, said: "The good news is we are really excited, we are talking to funders in Thailand and if the deal goes through they want to start hiring in three months and have five machines built straight away.
"The bad news is it has been really difficult since we came here because HIE have done nothing for us; if anything they have held us back. They just keep delaying and delaying. They’re totally uninterested."
HIE insisted it had "regular engagement" with Mr Hunt and it was "continuing to offer him advice alongside Business Gateway Moray".
A spokeswoman said the public "expects us to be professional and diligent when making investment decisions, and it is reasonable for us to ask questions and seek hard evidence from applicants to support their submissions".
Proton beam therapy uses a high-energy beam of protons rather than X-rays to deliver radiotherapy, reducing the risk of damage to the surrounding healthy tissues.
Researchers from the University of Liverpool and Cancer Research UK
Medical Research Council Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology published findings last month highlighting how cancer cells repair themselves following proton beam therapy.
The treatment hit the headlines in 2014 when a police search was mounted after the parents of five-year-old Ashya King took him out of Southampton hospital against doctors’ wishes and whisked him to Praque for proton beam therapy.
The treatment killed the tumour and appears to have cured him.
The first proton beam therapy system was installed by Proton International Partners at the Rutherford Cancer Centre, South Wales, last year - with several more private suites to follow.
And two centres are being installed at The Christie Hospital in Manchester, and at University College London Hospital, the latter will be operational from this year.
However, Mr Hunt said his accelerator proton therapy machine could treat patients at a fraction of the cost to NHS Scotland.
"We have basically engineered the hell out of it," he said.
"Our only objective was ‘how do we cut the cost of the treatment?’ We have had to take some shortcuts. We can treat 80 per cent of the cases at 20 per cent of the price – so low hanging fruit."
The engineer wants to secure millions of pounds of overseas investment to open a research and development centre and manufacturing base in Inverness creating up to 40 jobs in research and development and 100 jobs in production.
He is eyeing up Inverness Airport Business Park and Inverness Campus, home to the University of the Highlands and Islands.
In an ideal scenario the investor would gift one of the machines to NHS Scotland to treat up to 40 patients per day. Treatment time is quick – just 20 minutes per patient with daily sessions lasting between a fortnight and a month.
Mr Hunt said investors are interested but HIE has so far failed to deliver a package of information which spells out the potential funding and tax breaks for billionaire investors who are "desperate to build the high tech machines for patients in their own countries".
He said: "No-one else is doing what we are doing – and our markets are worldwide. We have been presenting our business case to HIE for about a year. We did try to bypass them and go straight to Scottish Enterprise - and things went smoothly with them – but we have to engage with HIE if we want to stay in the area. We can move to Aberdeenshire and get the better support from Scottish Enterprise.
"Or the Thai investors might say build it here in Asia so this will be the classic case of Scottish ideas, jobs elsewhere."