A 220-Ton Machine Has Landed In Irving To Zap Cancer

July 15, 2014 | by Matt Goodman

Transporting the cyclotron from the Port of Houston to Irving.
Transporting the cyclotron from the Port of Houston to Irving.

The semi-truck hit the pavement outside the Port of Houston at the beginning of the month, hauling a pair of crates containing a 220-ton machine that had already traveled 5,000 miles from Belgium. Its final resting place: Irving, smack-dab in the middle of a region with more than 6.5 million people and no nearby access to proton therapy.

The inventive form of radiation therapy zaps cancerous tumors located in tricky, sensitive places like the brain or near the eye or the spinal column or the lung. Its proponents say the beam delivers a concentrated dose of radiation to the tumor while minimizing the risk to healthy tissue.

“We can target the tumor without causing collateral damage,” says Gary Barlow, director of the Texas Center for Proton Therapy. “Because of the nature of proton therapy, we do not create damage to other critical organs located nearby.”

Central to the process is that 220-ton cyclotron, a particle accelerator that produces a proton beam that delivers ultra-precise radiation to the cancer, minimizing side effects that are common with more conventional radiation. The 63,000 square-foot facility was built specifically for the cyclotron. It features shielded concrete walls and three treatment rooms, which the cyclotron beams the proton radiation through a specially designed 143-foot line.

When the location opens in 2016, it will be able to treat 100 patients over the course of a 16-hour day, Barlow says.

“There are 6.5 million residents here in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area and the thing that I’m most thrilled about is that these patients will no longer have to travel outside the Metroplex to seek this game changing treatment,” he adds. “They’ll be able to stay in their homes. If this is a working person, they won’t have to take time off the job, the treatment is very quick.”

Transporting the cyclotron from the Port of Houston to Irving.
Transporting the cyclotron from the Port of Houston to Irving.
The first center for proton therapy opened in 1990 at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, located about an hour west of Los Angeles. Physicians soon realized its benefit, especially for children being treated for cancer. Their bodies are still developing and the minimized side effects from the proton therapy aids their recovery, said Leonard Arzt, executive director of the Maryland-based National Association for Proton Therapy.

“It helps in future years as kids’ bodies develop,” he says. “The precision of the proton beam is certainly an advantage for treating children, especially for lots of brain tumors.”

There are currently 14 operating proton therapy centers in America. About a dozen more are under construction, Arzt said. There are some concerns with the technology. For one, it costs more. And there are some forms of cancer, such as prostate, where there are many ways to treat it. Sometimes, insurers won’t approve the claim.

“There are certainly issues with high cost, issues associated with payers and reimbursements,” Arzt said. “That’s a challenge, but the marketplace is still pretty aggressive as far as developing more centers.”

The Texas Center for Proton Therapy is sandwiched between other centers in Houston and Oklahoma City. In addition to the three proton therapy treatment rooms, the $105 million facility will offer PET, CT, and MRI imaging scans, an on-site laboratory, and a 1,100-square foot community room to hold education symposiums.

“They’ll be able to stay in a nurturing environment where recovery and healing can take place,” Barlow says.

Proton therapy is a relatively new form of treatment. Arzt says there are a number of randomized clinical trials underway. He expects the results to add further validity to the treatment and help convince insurers to approve the claims: “The biggest issue around it is, is it any better or is it worth the higher cost?”

He’s not too worried, however: “There’s certainly a robust future here.”

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