The University of Maryland School of Medicine has begun construction of a $200 million proton center that will bring the latest in cancer treatment to the region and double investment in the University of Maryland's growing BioPark in West Baltimore.
University officials will join state and local officials, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, for an official groundbreaking Tuesday at the site of the 110,000-square-foot facility, which is expected to treat 2,000 cancer patients a year.
When completed in 2014, the treatment center will offer a form of cancer therapy growing in popularity that more precisely targets radiation to tumors, resulting in fewer side effects such as damage to other organs.
"This is big news for cancer patients," said Dr. William F. Regine, chair of the radiation oncology department at the medical school. "Now we have another tool. Hope for a cancer patient is about having all the options we can to give them the best chance for survival or outcome and a good quality of life. You want to be cured without devastating side effects that can happen years after treatment."
The facility will add 175 jobs, it will double the capital investment in the BioPark, originally conceived as a home for small biotech startup companies, to $400 million, said James L. Hughes, University of Maryland vice president of enterprise and economic development.
The medical park is moving forward as an area where the latest research is conducted and patients are treated for major illnesses. There are plans to add housing, retail and eventually a hotel to the area. Nearly 800 people will work at the BioPark once the proton center is completed.
There are 11 proton centers in the United States. The UM center is among a growing number of medical facilities dedicated to proton treatment, a practice that has been around since the 1950s but is becoming more advanced with research and better technology.
Many medical centers are tapping into private investment to finance the facilities, which are expensive to build. Proton treatment can cost twice as much as traditional cancer therapies, Regine said.
The medical school's faculty practice, the University of Maryland Radiation Oncology Associates, is partnering with a private company, Nevada-based Advance Particle Therapy, for the center.
APT raised the money, mostly from individual investors, to build and finance the center, which it will own through a corporate entity called the Maryland Proton Center, LLC.
The proton center will use equipment developed by Varian Medical Systems of Palo Alto, Calif.
"Proton treatment is not new, it's just that the cost barriers have been there for some time," said Jeff Bordok, president and CEO of APT. "Now that we have a model that we can assist in the financing by making it an investor-owned center, that is why we see more of these centers being built."
APT is also developing a center in California in partnership with Scripps Health and Scripps Clinical Medical Group in San Diego, as well as one in Atlanta to be run by Emory University Healthcare.
Faculty from the medical school will run the Maryland center and treat patients. Regine said they also hope to add to the body of research and improve on proton treatment. There is debate over the effectiveness of proton treatment because the amount of clinical research on the procedure has been limited.
"Every patient in this center will be on a research protocol for something," Regine said. "We'll be doing the studies that will determine which groups of patients can best benefit from proton therapy. That is the nature of who we are as one of the top research institutions."
Most cancer patients are receiving effective treatment through traditional means, Regine said. But about 25 percent could benefit from proton treatment, including those with cancers of the lung, central nervous system, gastrointestinal system, liver and prostate. The treatment is also recommended for children because it is less invasive.
Pat Tierney of Lexington, Ky., was treated at the University of Maryland for tongue cancer. The former singer and homemaker had been told by other doctors that she would have to have surgery to remove her voice box and tongue.
Regine and the doctors at the University of Maryland told her they could use an aggressive form of radiation to treat the disease. Three years after treatment, she is cancer-free and she still has her voice box and tongue.
The 71-year-old Tierney still comes to University of Maryland for follow-up visits and will be on hand for Tuesday's groundbreaking. Although she wouldn't have qualified for proton treatment, she said she knows what it's like to have cancer and wonder if you'll survive it.
"I think it's just mandatory to have as many options — and as much hope — as you can," she said.