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Proton Therapy Center at M. D. Anderson Opens


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Proton Therapy Center at M. D. Anderson Opens to Patients

August 23, 2006

by Barbara Kram, Assistant Editor

Launching a new era in radiation treatment, The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center has started treating patients at its Proton Therapy Center.

The first National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center to offer the treatment, and just the fourth facility in the country, the $125 million, 94,000-square-foot Proton Therapy Center at M. D. Anderson will provide eligible patients with the most advanced innovation in radiation therapy.

The high-tech treatment is triple the cost of traditional X-ray radiation, AP reports. But it’s covered by Medicare and many insurers because its precision makes it more effective for attacking tumors located near vital tissue such as the eye or spinal cord.

In fact, proton therapy is the most precise form of radiation treatment available for some tumors, according to James D. Cox, M.D., head of the Division of Radiation Oncology at M. D. Anderson. Because of proton therapy's precision, it minimizes harm to surrounding tissues and optimizes treatment of the tumor.

"The arrival of proton therapy marks a milestone for radiation treatment at M. D. Anderson, with the precision, safety and effectiveness it brings to patients," says Cox.

"When I started in this discipline three decades ago, we had to give radiation to large fields of the body because we couldn't determine exactly where the tumor was. Now, with the evolution of imaging techniques, we can pinpoint where the tumor is and plan the depth of the radiation to the tumor. With proton therapy, we will be able to increase doses of radiation, preserve healthy tissue and treat more patients much more successfully," he continues.

Protons differ from traditional x-ray treatment because they deposit the highest dose of energy when they come to a stop in the body, and have a very low dose of energy when they enter and have no dose as it exits the body.

"This differentiation gives radiation oncologists greater control and effectiveness in directing and depositing high levels of destructive energies at the tumor," says Cox. "Because a radiation oncologist has the advantage of more precise targeting, the patient receives the most potent radiation treatment possible without damaging surrounding organs or tissue."

Conventional radiation therapy, however, remains a proven and vital cancer treatment, and most often will still be the preferred radiation treatment, says Cox.

To date, more than 40,000 patients at 25 centers around the world have received proton therapy treatment. When M. D. Anderson's facility is operating at full capacity, it can accommodate 3,500 patients a year, making it the largest in the world.

Proton therapy has proved most effective for cancers of the prostate, eye, lung, brain, head and neck and cancers in children.

"There's a broad range of patients who will be treated with proton therapy, and they'll be selected very carefully based on the criteria that their tumor needs a high dose and it's close to sensitive normal organs," says Cox. "Our decisions about who will receive proton therapy largely will be made in the multidisciplinary care team, which also includes medical and surgical expertise. The team is key to our recommendation for standard radiation therapy now, so we will extend proton as yet another option."

Cox says that patients do not feel anything during proton therapy treatment, and because of the minimal effect on healthy tissues, they experience few, if any, side effects.

He added that a major component to the Proton Therapy Center, like all clinical activities at M. D. Anderson, will be to explore new ways to best utilize and advance the field. One of many areas of research will be to investigate new disease sites that may benefit from the therapy. Exploring the interaction of chemotherapy and other molecular agents with proton therapy will be another area of research. All patients treated at the Proton Therapy Center at M. D. Anderson will be enrolled in clinical protocols that will document the results of therapy.

The two-story Proton Therapy Center features three gantry treatment rooms, one fixed-beam treatment room, an experimental treatment area, a full range of patient and research support areas, a synchrotron and beam transport system.

Gantry patient treatment rooms will have a patient treatment bed framed by a large wheel known as a gantry. The gantries, which are 35 feet in diameter and weigh approximately 200 tons - equivalent to the weight of a Boeing 757 - rotate around the patient to direct the proton beam precisely at the tumor target.

A compact particle accelerator, known as a synchrotron, accelerates protons to variable energies into the beam transport line. The synchrotron contains a ring of magnets that constrains the protons so that they travel in a set path inside the high vacuum chamber. During each revolution of travel through the chamber, the protons gain an increment of energy from radiofrequency power. After many cycles, the protons reach the energy required by a specific treatment plan and are extracted from the ring into the beam transport line, which then directs the proton beam to the patient in a treatment room.

A unique private-public partnership, the Proton Therapy Center was built through a collaboration to develop and operate the investor-owned freestanding $125 million facility. M. D. Anderson provided the facility site, valued at $2.5 million and has full clinical, research and staffing responsibilities. Other investors and partners in the project include: Hitachi, Ltd. and Hitachi America, Ltd., supplying the proton therapy technology; Sanders Morris Harris, Inc. the largest investment bank and securities firm based in the Southwest; The Styles Co., a Houston-based project development and management firm specializing in health-care facilities; the Houston Firefighters' Relief and Retirement Fund and Houston Police Officers' Pension System, lead financial investors in the project; General Electric Company; Varian Medical Systems; and IMPAC Medical Systems.

Located at 1840 Old Spanish Trail near Fannin in the University of Texas Research Park, the Proton Therapy Center is part of M. D. Anderson's Red and Charline McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer. Comprised of six centers focused on the study of genomics, metastasis, proteomics, immunology, diagnostic imaging and drug development, the Institute houses all research facilities except the Proton Therapy Center, which will be the sole patient care facility.

For more information on the Proton Therapy Center at M. D. Anderson, patients can call (866) 632-4PTC.

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