Proton therapy treatments are based on a proton RBE (relative biological effectiveness) relative to high-energy photons of 1.1. The use of this generic, spatially invariant RBE within tumors and normal tissues disregards the evidence that proton RBE varies with linear energy transfer (LET), physiological and biological factors, and clinical endpoint.

Based on the available experimental data from published literature, this review analyzes relationships of RBE with dose, biological endpoint and physical properties of proton beams. The review distinguishes between endpoints relevant for tumor control probability and those potentially relevant for normal tissue complication. Numerous endpoints and experiments on subcellular damage and repair effects are discussed.

Despite the large amount of data, considerable uncertainties in proton RBE values remain. As an average RBE for cell survival in the center of a typical spread-out Bragg peak (SOBP), the data support a value of ~1.15 at 2 Gy/ fraction. The proton RBE increases with increasing LETd and thus with depth in an SOBP from ~1.1 in the entrance region, to ~1.15 in the center, ~1.35 at the distal edge and ~1.7 in the distal fall-off (when averaged over all cell lines, which may not be clinically representative). For small modulation widths the values could be increased. Furthermore, there is a trend of an increase in RBE as (α/β)x decreases. In most cases the RBE also increases with decreasing dose, specifically for systems with low (α/β)x. Data on RBE for endpoints other than clonogenic cell survival are too diverse to allow general statements other than that the RBE is, on average, in line with a value of ~1.1.

This review can serve as a source for defining input parameters for applying or refining biophysical models and to identify endpoints where additional radiobiological data are needed in order to reduce the uncertainties to clinically acceptable levels.

The full article is available here (free to read).