Proton therapy catching on

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  • | 12:00 p.m. August 15, 2008
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by Mary-Kate Roan

Staff Writer

It was Aug. 14, 2006 when the first proton beam therapy patient was treated at the University of Florida’s Proton Therapy Institute at Shands Jacksonville. Since then, the institute has become one of the top oncology facilities in the country.

Planning for the proton beam therapy institute began in 1998 and the University of Florida began building the facility in January 2004.

“It was eight years in the making, which was relatively quick,” said Stuart Klein, the executive director and assistant dean/lecturer of the UF Proton Therapy Institute. “We are the only one in the Southeast.”

One of only five hospitals in the United States that offers proton beam therapy for qualified patients, the technology and machinery looks like something that should be operated by Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy on “Star Trek.”

While patients are seen and treated during relatively normal doctor’s hours, the facility is monitored around the clock.

“The treatment hours are from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” said Klein. “But it’s really a 24-7 operation with people checking equipment the rest of the time.”

When the institute opened, there was only one proton beam treatment room with one gantry, which is a machine that rotates around the patient to direct the protons targeted at the cancer tumor in the body. And the gantries are huge. A single gantry is three-stories tall, weighs 200,000 pounds and is rotated by two 1.5 horsepower engines. Today, there are three patient rooms with three different gantries. But they are all powered by one cyclotron — another enormous machine.

Weighing in at 440,000 pounds, the cyclotron uses magnets to accelerate the protons to speeds approaching the speed of light. The cyclotron is housed in a room that is surrounded by walls that are 18 feet thick. And if it breaks, the entire proton therapy facility would be shut down until it was repaired.

“The technology for proton therapy has been around for about 50 years,” said Klein. “But it was limited primarily to research facilities.”

While 70 percent of patients are from “out of town” as Klein puts it, the institute has recently treated its first pancreatic cancer and lung cancer cases. But by far the most popular cancer treated at the institute is prostate cancer.

“About 70 percent of our cases are prostate cancer,” said Klein.

Since the facility’s opening two years ago, over 860 patients have received about 27,000 treatments. But how does proton beam therapy differ from traditional radiation therapy?

“Linear accelerators produce high speed energy that enters the body at multiple angles and intersect at the tumor site, hitting the tumor from several angles and exiting the body,” said Klein, explaining how traditional radiation therapy works. “The difference between traditional radiation treatment and proton treatment is that with protons it’s an actual particle that enters the body. They stop at the tumor site and there is no exit, so there’s less damage to healthy tissue.”

The X-rays leave behind a path of damage similar to a bullet entering and exiting the body. Radiation also leaves behind a path of radiation and can damage healthy tissue.

Within 19 months of opening its doors, the institute saw over 100 patients per day, making it the youngest facility to reach that milestone.

The facility isn’t cheap either. So far the costs have totaled around $125 million. But it’s a price worth paying for cutting edge cancer treatment.

Klein added that anywhere from 200-220 phone calls and e-mails are received by the staff on a daily basis for potential patients. However, in July there was a record number of calls and e-mails: 290. And so far the research shows that proton beam therapy works at least as good as traditional therapy.

“There are a number of tumors that we treat that are inoperable nor can be treated with traditional radiation due to excessive damage to the healthy tissues, so proton therapy is the only choice,” said Klein. “At this point it’s too early to define our success rate, but results look very promising.”

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Photos provided by Proton Beam Therapy Institute