Clinical routine in proton therapy currently neglects the radiobiological impact of nuclear target fragments generated by proton beams. This is partially due to the difficult characterization of the irradiation field. The detection of low energetic fragments, secondary protons and fragments, is in fact challenging due to their very short range. However, considering their low residual energy and therefore high LET, the possible contribution of such heavy particles to the overall biological effect could be not negligible. In this context, we performed a systematic analysis aimed at an explicit assessment of the RBE (relative biological effectiveness, i.e., the ratio of photon to proton physical dose needed to achieve the same biological effect) contribution of target fragments in the biological dose calculations of proton fields. The TOPAS Monte Carlo code has been used to characterize the radiation field, i.e., for the scoring of primary protons and fragments in an exemplary water target. TRiP98, in combination with LEM IV RBE tables, was then employed to evaluate the RBE with a mixed field approach accounting for fragments' contributions. The results were compared with that obtained by considering only primary protons for the pristine beam and spread out Bragg peak (SOBP) irradiations, in order to estimate the relative weight of target fragments to the overall RBE. A sensitivity analysis of the secondary particles production cross-sections to the biological dose has been also carried out in this study. Finally, our modeling approach was applied to the analysis of a selection of cell survival and RBE data extracted from published in vitro studies. Our results indicate that, for high energy proton beams, the main contribution to the biological effect due to the secondary particles can be attributed to secondary protons, while the contribution of heavier fragments is mainly due to helium. The impact of target fragments on the biological dose is maximized in the entrance channels and for small α/β values. When applied to the description of survival data, model predictions including all fragments allowed better agreement to experimental data at high energies, while a minor effect was observed in the peak region. An improved description was also obtained when including the fragments' contribution to describe RBE data. Overall, this analysis indicates that a minor contribution can be expected to the overall RBE resulting from target fragments. However, considering the fragmentation effects can improve the agreement with experimental data for high energy proton beams.
Keywords: Monte Carlo; TOPAS; biophysical dose-response models; mixed field model; proton therapy; relative biological effectiveness (RBE).