The Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah will soon offer a new technology to treat cancer patients that provides more targeted radiation therapy—an advantage when treating many tumors in and around vital structures, such as the spinal cord and brain stem, or for certain childhood tumors.
The new equipment delivers proton therapy, which uses a precise beam of protons—only a few millimeters wide—to target tumors. This will become the first proton center in the Mountain West region, and construction on the new facility that will house the equipment will begin in early November 2018.
“We want to make sure our physicians have every tool available in the fight against cancer,” said Bill Salter, PhD, director of radiation oncology at HCI and professor and chief of the division of medical physics at the U. “At HCI, we have been closely following the evolution of proton technology for over a decade. With recent technological advances and data showing what type of patients benefit most from this treatment, we know that now is the time to add this to the vast array of radiation therapy technology and expertise at our cancer center.”
HCI estimates it refers more than 60 patients per year to proton therapy centers out of state. With the nearest proton centers located a 10-hour drive away—in southern Arizona, western Washington and central California—having a local facility will lift a heavy burden from many patients, who may need to plan for a treatment course that occurs five days a week and spans four to eight weeks.
Approximately half of all cancer patients receive some type of radiation therapy as a part of their treatment. For some patients, protons have a distinct advantage over other radiation therapies because they can be focused very precisely on the tumor, reducing the impact on surrounding healthy tissues.
For tumors that are good candidates for proton therapy, the treatments can be extremely precise—causing less damage to healthy tissue near the tumor and virtually no ‘exit dose,’—the radiation that passes through the tumor and exists the body—because protons release most of their energy inside the tumor.
The scanning beam technology that will be used at HCI uses a pencil thin beam of protons that is swept back and forth by magnets—think of a small paint brush—precisely painting the radiation beam onto the tumor. Earlier proton technologies used a “scattering” approach, which broadened the beam like a flashlight beam and led to less precision than the laser like scanning beam approach.
Proton treatment has been found to be an effective radiation therapy option for numerous types of cancers. This includes adult cancers, such as head and neck tumors, brain tumors, prostate cancer, lymphomas, pancreas cancer, esophageal cancer and is particularly effective when treating childhood cancers. In addition to the new proton therapy technology, HCI will continue to offer a wide array of radiation therapy options to patients, allowing each treatment to be customized to each patient’s needs.