2,000 Proton Therapy Patients

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By: James D. Cox, M.D., MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center

James Cox MD Proton Therapy CenterThe MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center recently celebrated a milestone. We treated our 2,000th patient -- and what a journey it has been.

When I started out in this discipline more than three decades ago, we gave radiation to incredibly large fields of the body because we couldn't determine the exact location of the tumor. Now, with the evolution of CTs, PET scans and other imaging techniques, we can pinpoint exactly where the tumor is and plan the depth of the radiation to the tumor, allowing us to offer patients higher doses with fewer side effects. 

Proton therapy became compelling because the energy of protons can be carefully controlled and protons give their highest dose when they stop in the body. There is no dose to normal tissues beyond the tumor.

Developing a $130 million facility such as the Proton Therapy Center, however, was no small endeavor. Dr. (John) Mendelsohn listened to our arguments, endorsed the concept and convinced The University of Texas System Board of Regents to approve its development. A public-private partnership was formed to finance the endeavor. With Hitachi chosen as the manufacturer, ground was broken in 2003. Almost exactly three years later, the first patient was treated.

The technology has actually been around for more than 40 years, but mostly for the treatment of rare diseases. At MD Anderson, we are committed to expanding its use to any and all diseases where high doses are required to control tumors and X-ray treatments are limited because of the sensitivities of the surrounding normal tissues. 

We treat many men with prostate cancer, one of the few diseases for which proton therapy has a long history. However, MD Anderson is breaking ground in proton treatment for many other brain tumors, especially those in children, as well as liver, lung and esophageal cancers. Patients with these latter two diseases often benefit from chemotherapy given at the same time as proton therapy. This is very advantageous because we can avoid undesirable effects on the normal lung, heart and esophagus.

Whether at the Proton Therapy Center or any other department within MD Anderson, our goal is to always deliver patients the best, most advanced treatment in the most compassionate manner. The physicians who care for proton patients, their colleagues in other specialties, and even many patients have all developed a passion for proton therapy. They recognize the lack of side effects from the treatment and want to tell all who will listen about this relatively new and powerful therapy.

Moreover, we are just beginning to extend proton therapy to all patients who might benefit. MD Anderson is the only proton center in the country to offer an even more specialized form of proton therapy known as pencil beam scanning. Also called spot scanning, this technology makes it possible to paint a sub-millimeter beam of protons into the tumor and avoid normal tissues with even greater precision. When pencil beam scanning is fully developed, we hope to treat patients with cancer in the head and neck, pancreas, rectum and breast, as well as brain tumors in adults and sarcomas.

At MD Anderson we are rapidly developing and expanding our proton therapy practice. There is so much more to be done for our proton patients, and we are passionately committed to achieving the maximal, best use of this special resource for all patients who might benefit.

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