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Some 10 years ago, many in the medical community, as well as the Wall Street Journal in a page one story, questioned the vision that physicists and medical scientists had had for more than 40 years: That inside a space-age hospital room, a team of physicians could activate a small accelerator and fire off whirling protons at full speed through a device that looks like a giant Ferris wheel and into the body of a cancer patient. A few seconds later, the proton beam kills cells in a cancerous tumor, leaving nearby healthy cells and organs untouched.
Now, some ten years later, this vision, and the proton beam accelerator that fights tumors with little or no side effects, is no longer considered questionable: proton beam therapy has proven itself over and over again in the last ten years to be a major breakthrough in the overall war on cancer; especially for men with prostate cancer. So much so that a recent health story in the N.Y. Times about increased treatment options for men with prostate cancer called proton therapy "a sophisticated form of therapy that highly targets proton radiation, where the protons are 'shaped' into beams to match the shape of the tumor to eliminate damage of surrounding tissue."
In November, 2000, thousands of invited cancer patients previously treated with proton therapy at Loma Linda University Medical Center (LLUMC), were honored as "heroes" and attended a reunion with their physicians for a "celebration of life" at the southern California medical center on the 10th anniversary of the Proton Treatment Center.
"We're dedicated to making the patient's point of view matter in quality of health and cancer care. Our patients sought out proton therapy and quality care. They took matters into their own hands. They came here looking for leading edge technology and treatment and they found it," noted Dr. James M. Slater, director of the proton center.
During the past ten years, more than 5500 people with cancer and other diseases, from nearly every state in the U.S., and from more than 25 countries, have been treated with proton beam therapy. More than half of these are men with prostate cancer seeking to avoid surgery, while easing the pain, discomfort, and side effects commonly associated with a radical prostatectomy.
In the ten years since the world's first hospital-based proton facility at Loma Linda became operational, patients received proton treatment for tumors of the eye, head and neck area, spinal column, lung, liver and prostate, as well youngsters with pediatric cancers. In the near future, Loma Linda physicians will begin treating breast cancer with proton therapy, as well as Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders.
Protons were first suggested as a potential cancer therapy in 1946 by Robert R. Wilson , who established the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory . But it wasn't until the 1970s that patients were first exposed to protons in physics labs at Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, at Fermi and at several institutions abroad.
Loma Linda, a Seventh Day Adventist institution, had been intrigued with the proton accelerator since the early 1970s. After years of physics research, headed by Dr. James M. Slater, current director of the proton center, the hospital announced in 1987 its intentions to build the world's first clinical proton facility. At that time, the cost was estimated to be about $40 million. As it turned out, that figure more than doubled. The federal government, with help from members of Congress who believed in the cancer fighting technology, appropriated $21 million towards the project as a demonstration of their confidence in the feasibility of utilizing protons to shrink cancerous tumors.
In 1988, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved proton therapy as a cancer treatment so that patients treated at Loma Linda would qualify for reimbursement by Medicare and other insurance.
The Proton Treatment Center at LLUMC currently treats about 100 patients daily using three moveable gantry beams and a fourth, stationary beam. When it first opened in 1990, Dr. Slater envisioned a time when radiation therapy would be synonymous with proton therapy. Today, that seems to be the case as other national cancer centers announce their intentions to add proton therapy to their treatment mix. Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital will open its Northeast Proton Center early next year. Other hospitals in Houston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Jacksonville have plans to build proton facilities.
The November 12th tenth anniversary event featured patient testimonials and reunions with physicians, a tribute to Dr. Slater, remarks by U.S. Representative Jerry Lewis of California, and by longtime CBS-TV golf analyst Ken Venturi, whose annual proton charity golf tournament has raised more than $2 million for Loma Linda's cancer research projects.
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