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Proton Therapy

Proton Therapy Stings Cancer – Advanced Cancer Treatments Part 2

Tucked inside a building at a quiet office park in Hampton, Va., is a 200-ton machine called a cyclotron.

A cyclotron is used in the world of physics to accelerate charged particles. Using magnets, it spins protons at 60 percent of the speed of light, or at over 402 million miles per hour.

Science-babble aside, what the cyclotron does is create another way to fight cancer. The Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute is one of only nine facilities in the country to offer the cutting-edge treatment that combines physics with medicine.

The institute opened in August 2010 as the world’s largest free-standing proton therapy facility. Since then, it has treated about 800 people with a variety of cancers, from prostrate to pediatric.

More than half of all cancers require radiation treatment, says Dr. Christopher Sinesi, a radiation oncologist and the institute’s medical director. Traditional radiation therapy uses X-rays—the type that come from a linear accelerator like that used with Sentara’s Cyberknife.

Proton therapy uses protons, which are found inside the nucleus of atoms. Spun inside the cyclotron, the proton beams are directed through tubes and into one of five treatment rooms at the Hampton institute. Heavy brass plates adjust the size of the beam, while a sophisticated computer system directs the protons to their destination.

Both proton therapy and traditional radiation treat tumors the same way, damaging the DNA and inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. Traditional radiation, however, usually affects tissue along the entire treatment path. With proton therapy, the radiated beam drops the bulk of its energy right at a tumor, limiting damage to surrounding healthy tissue and organs.

“Once you give radiation, you can’t take it back,” says Keith Gregory, the institute’s executive director. “So you want it to be right.”

Proton therapy has proven especially effective in treating prostate cancer by keeping the radiation-sensitive body parts surrounding the prostate from becoming radiated and irreversibly damaged. In fact, the prevalence of prostate cancer in Hampton Roads—where more men die from it than anywhere else in the country—is one factor that led Hampton University to build a proton therapy institute.

Newport News resident Robert Jones’ prostate cancer was diagnosed shortly after a December 2010 physical. His prostate-specific antigen (or PSA) levels indicated aggressive, fast-growing prostate cancer.

Jones wasn’t interested in traditional radiation therapy after hearing a friend’s experience. He knew he wanted proton therapy before he even walked through the institute’s doors.

Jones’ treatment took place in early 2012, lasting just minutes a day for the prescribed 44 days. Patients receive treatment while immobilized in large, rotating gantries. “It wasn’t unpleasant at all,” says Jones, who is 81.

Cancer patients usually aren’t considered cured until they remain cancer-free for at least five years, but so far, Jones’s PSA levels are microscopic. 

“I was very thankful someone told me about this place, and I was able to go here,” he says. 

Although the institute at first focused on prostate cancer, it has branched out to treat other tumors, including those from lung, head and neck, skin, pancreatic and types of pediatric cancers. Patients have come from all over the world for treatment. The center’s first pediatric patient traveled from Ohio in 2010 for treatment of a brain tumor.

Dr. Allan Thornton, another of the center’s five radiation oncologists, says proton therapy is becoming a mainstay for treating pediatric tumors. By sparing still-growing tissue in children, proton therapy can reduce growth defects and secondary tumors caused by traditional radiation. The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., is currently building a proton therapy center dedicated solely to the treatment of children.

“And we have this here in Hampton Roads,” Gregory says. “It’s pretty incredible.”

For more information about the institute, visit hamptonproton.org, or call 877-251-6838.