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Proton therapy is fulfilling its promise

10:05 PM EST, December 3, 2010

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The best-kept secret in cancer treatment is gaining widespread attention in part from local news at Hampton University.

When the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute officially opened in October, it put proton therapy on the map not only in Virginia, but the entire Mid-Atlantic region. It was one of the most important medical headlines of the year. HU joins the ranks of such prestigious institutions as Massachusetts General Hospital, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Pennsylvania and Loma Linda University Medical Center, plus four other operating proton centers nationwide.

Now comes the Mayo Clinic, one of the most respected medical facilities in the world, adding its name to the proton community. The Mayo Clinic just announced it intends to develop and build not one but two proton centers — an investment estimated at $370 million — on its campuses in Rochester, Minnesota and Phoenix, Arizona.

Let's also throw in New York's revered Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. MSK received initial approval from the state to develop a $235 million proton center in Manhattan, leading the way with a consortium of five academic medical centers.

The promise of proton therapy is at last coming to fruition.

It was more than 60 years ago that researchers and physicists theorized that energized sub-atomic particles could be put to good use in fighting cancer. We could split atoms not just to produce weapons, but to save lives. In fact, President Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program paved the way for important medical breakthroughs in nuclear medicine and radiation technologies that we use today — including proton beam radiation.

Proton therapy represents the most advanced form of radiation treatment available in the world. Some scientists refer to proton therapy as the "holy grail" of all radiotherapies because of the proton beam's ability to precisely target tumors and spare radiation effects on surrounding healthy tissue.

Doctors know that proton therapy offers more effective radiation treatment than conventional X-ray radiotherapy and is the preferred option for certain types of cancer. The benefits in treating cancers near critical structures such as the eye, brain, lung and prostate, and the value of protons in treating cancer in children, are undeniable.

But with only nine proton centers across the nation now operational, we don't have enough treatment slots to handle all the patients who want this state-of-the-art technology. That may be changing as the interest and activity in proton center development accelerates, evidenced by HU's recent accomplishment in recognizing not only the medical benefits but also the economic value of building a proton center in Virginia. Other institutions and states are following suit.

For instance, the construction of Mayo's proton centers has been described as an "economic stimulus package." This is because of the sizable construction projects entailed, the creation of medical professional jobs, and the attraction of patients to the destinations. Since people typically undergo several weeks of non-invasive treatment, proton therapy is compared by some to a sort of tourism attraction. The term "radiation vacation" is often used by patients to describe their experience of proton therapy. (To give credit where due, I believe the term was coined by NBC's George Lewis.)

I commend HU President Dr. William Harvey for his vision, passion and commitment to building the world's largest free-standing proton center. Despite the economy, Dr. Harvey raised the $235 million needed to bring his vision to reality.

While Hampton University's proton center fills a regional need, the new facility still requires more funding to advance its research program and develop important clinical trials. Further research is cited by some as a barrier to the growth of proton therapy. As proton therapy continues to evolve and become more widely available, clinical effectiveness will be demonstrated to the satisfaction of researchers and clinicians as well as patients.

After decades of research, development and clinical use, proton therapy is fulfilling its considerable promise for cancer patients. Hampton University is playing a vital role not only in letting people know about the world's most advanced cancer treatment, but in expanding access to it.

Leonard Arzt is the executive director of the National Association for Proton Therapy, Silver Spring, Md. http://www.proton-therapy.org