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Washington , D.C. .. More than half a century ago, Dr. Robert R. Wilson, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb and who later championed the peaceful use of atomic energy, proposed using proton radiation to fight cancerous tumors. Today, the "father of proton therapy," as he is often called, would be stunned by the growth and development of proton therapy in this country.
Before Wilson died four years ago, he saw his dream come true during a visit to the world's first hospital-based proton center at Loma Linda University Medical Center in southern, California. As his legacy lives on in the thousands of lives spared by proton therapy, Wilson would also be amazed by what the future holds for the radiation technology he envisioned decades ago.
"The primary reasons for the growth of proton therapy, from a patient's perspective, is that it is non-invasive and non-threatening to healthy cells and organs, produces better outcomes, and has fewer adverse side affects," says Leonard Arzt, executive director of the National Association for Proton Therapy. "We hear from grateful patients and their families, who have experienced the advantages of proton therapy. Many patients have come to realize that the treatment is no longer as frightening as the disease itself."
Take, for example, men diagnosed with prostate cancer. Since the mid-1990s, men have taken their fate into their own hands, formed their own word-of-mouth networks, shared information and experiences, and self-referred themselves for treatment to the few proton therapy centers in the U.S., such as Loma Linda University. Many of these men successfully sought non-invasive proton radiation therapy as an alternative to radical prostate surgery.
As additional medical studies are published about the advantages of proton radiation, and the positive outcomes resulting from modern patient treatment protocols, the referring medical community will begin to realize that proton therapy can help their patients. A good example is the newly published Journal of the American Medical Association study of 500 men who have had surgery for prostate cancer and have relapsed with the disease. The study says that if doctors treat them early with radiation therapy (such as proton radiation) these men can be cured. Other recent studies have established the greater efficacy of proton therapy over standard radiation therapy.
The increased demand for proton therapy has motivated one of the most prominent cancer centers in the world. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston is building a $125 million proton facility due to open for patients in early 2006.
"We've got a pent-up demand for this technology already, and we anticipate this will draw patients worldwide", said Dr. James Cox, head of the division of radiation oncology. The M.D. Anderson Proton Therapy Center will eventually treat over 3,000 patients a year. It will also anchor the 100-acre University of Texas Research Park and help spur growth in Houston 's biotechnology programs.
The two other proton facilities currently treating patients in the U.S. are the Northeast Proton Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute at Indiana University, Bloomington.
As the promise of proton therapy continues to be fulfilled, scientists and medical researchers will continue to find even better ways to use protons to benefit patients with more complicated cancer problems. Already, proton therapy is being used to treat certain pediatric cancers, like brain tumors, sparing youngsters serious side effects and trauma. Within the next few years, proton therapy will be able to treat cancers that are less localized, such as breast, lung, and cervical cancers.
Dr. Wilson said more than 50 years ago that the development of proton therapy has a long way to go to reach its ultimate potential. With the development of the new proton therapy centers such as M.D. Anderson's, and the advancement of treatment protocols at existing centers like Loma Linda, that potential is beginning to be realized.
For further information: www.proton-therapy.org or 1-800-protons.
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