by Mike Sharkey
In less than a year, the University of Florida’s Proton Therapy Institute at Shands Jacksonville has gone from treating just a handful of patients a day to more than 70. When it opened, only one cyclotron was operational. Today, all three are treating patients with a variety of cancers. And, the company that builds the proton beam itself just announced it’s moving its American headquarters to Jacksonville from Englewood, N.Y.
“I am very happy with how things are going. They are going very well,” said Dr. Carlos Vargas, who treats prostate cancer patients at the Institute. “At the end of the day, the question is: Can we deliver? Can we do what we promised? The answer is yes.”
Monday, Vargas gave the Meninak Club the 10-minute overview of the Institute, how the proton beam therapy works and its advantages over conventional cancer treatments. He also got to meet with a couple of former patients, Preston Haskell and Pat Williams, both of whom were successfully treated for prostate cancer.
“I was the No. 2 patient. I wanted to be No. 1,” said Haskell, who is chairman of The Haskell Company. “My physician said it was still experimental. But, it wasn’t. I could have been No. 1.”
That honor went to Ben Smith, a Boeing engineer who lives in the Spacecoast area.
Haskell was treated from mid-August to mid-October of last year. The non-invasive, painless procedure worked.
“All the results are perfect,” said Haskell, adding he did look into alternative and less expensive methods to treat his cancer.
In the end — with the tab being picked up by his insurance company — Haskell opted for the best treatment available and he’s become one of the Institute’s most vocal proponents. Over the course of eight weeks, Haskell received actual treatment for about a minute a day, five days a week. There was no pain, no discomfort and minimal side effects.
“I drove myself over there every day and was in the office by 10 in the morning,” said Haskell.
Vargas was born in Colombia and still has a thick accent. However, his enthusiasm for the Institute and its future translate perfectly. He said the cutting-edge therapy may be the ultimate in painless, non-invasive cancer treatment. But, that doesn’t mean cancer doctors and researchers won’t try to fine-tune the process.
“It’s hard to say where we’ll be in 10 years. We will probably just improve on this technology,” said Vargas. “We have gone from X-rays to particle therapy. Now, this is just going to get better.”
Vargas said the recent announcement that IBA PT, Inc. — the Belgium-based company that manufactures the proton beam, cyclotron and gantries — intends to move its headquarters to Jacksonville will benefit IBA more than the doctors at the Institute.
“The beam works well, now it is up to the physicians to make it work better for the patients,” said Vargas, explaining the engineers and maintenance workers with IBA will get to see first-hand how the therapy works on a day-to-day basis.
One of the Institute’s next big tasks is to identify and create housing for its patients. The Institute also specializes in the treatment of pediatric cancer. Those children are accompanied by their families and considering that 70 percent of the patients are from outside of Jacksonville there’s a true need for temporary housing that resembles home more than a hotel room. That need is being addressed.
Proton Therapy Institute Executive Director Stuart Klein said ground was recently broken on a 35-unit development in Springfield that will cater specifically to the Institute’s patients.
“We are also working with area hotels and apartment owners,” he said.