Photo: Orlando Health
Proton Therapy: Beaming high-tech treatment
Advances in proton therapy make treatment more widespread and less costly.
In April, Orlando Health opened the first proton therapy center in central Florida. Its first patient was Rhea Birusingh, a 37-year-old woman who found out while she was pregnant that she had a brain tumor behind her right eye. The tumor was inoperable. Without proton therapy, Birusingh would have faced an increased risk of short-term memory decline and loss of eyesight.
Doctors used a three-story, 200,000-pound machine to direct a proton beam into an area of Birusingh’s brain less than a millimeter in diameter. Birusingh is now awaiting a follow-up scan, and doctors are hopeful that the six weeks of treatment have prevented the tumor from growing.
Orlando Health has been treating about 25 patients a day in its 15,000-sq.-ft. proton therapy center, which consists of three floors — two above ground and one underground. Inside the center is a Mevion S250 superconducting synchrocyclotron proton accelerator that is more compact and less expensive than first-generation proton therapy machines.
Proton therapy is used most often to treat tumors that are inoperable or in difficult locations such as the eye, the brain and the spinal cord. Increasingly, it’s being used to treat more types of cancers. While traditional X-rays irradiate healthy tissue and organs on their way in and out of the body, protons can be focused on a specific tumor site without damaging healthy adjacent tissue. For example, for breast cancer, patients can be at greater risk of cardiac disease if heart tissue is compromised during radiation. Proton therapy reduces the risk of damage to healthy tissue and bones and decreases the odds of other tumors later in life, which is why physicians especially like to use it to treat childhood cancers.
To get the right dose of protons to the specific area, three different types of beams are used to direct and shape the radiation: Passive scattering, uniform scanning and pencil beam scanning. Proton centers throughout Florida use all three types, with pencil-beam proton therapy being the newest. On average, patients undergoing proton therapy receive 25 to 30 treatments over four to six weeks.
Ackerman Cancer Center
Ackerman Cancer Center in Jacksonville celebrated a year of using proton therapy as a treatment option, becoming the only private, physician-owned oncology practice in Florida to offer it. The Ackerman center’s proton therapy uses passive scattering to target tumors and has treated more than 200 patients.
“Often, we are treating difficult cases … patients who wouldn’t be able to receive conventional radiation because of the location of the tumor or medical problems that would make normal radiation difficult to do,” says Scot Ackerman, director of the center.
Ackerman is planning to install a second proton therapy unit in 2017. The second machine will offer pencil beam scanning. “We believe in the modality and the treatment. We believe it is the future of radiation oncology,” Ackerman says.