Beth colorfully compares her first proton therapy treatment session to watching a scene from a science fiction movie unfold around her. Although the pristine white walls and state-of-the-art equipment conjure up images from the future, the technology will soon be a reality on the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital campus. The hospital is currently building the world’s only proton center dedicated solely to the treatment of children.
Part of a $198 million project to enhance the hospital’s clinical and laboratory facilities, the St. Jude Red Frog Events Proton Therapy Center is slated to open in 2015.
The new center will greatly enhance the hospital’s ability to conduct research optimizing the use of proton therapy in children.
“This facility will enable us to complete important trials while providing the support that only St. Jude can provide to patients,” says Larry Kun, MD, chair of St. Jude Radiological Sciences.
What is proton therapy?
Proton therapy offers tremendous advantages compared to X-ray technology because it is more precise and may be used to deliver a potentially higher dose of radiation to the tumor with fewer side effects. By confining radiation exposure to the tumor itself, the pinpointed therapy reduces a person’s risk of experiencing toxic effects on major organs and of developing secondary cancers later in life.
“It’s exciting to hear that St. Jude is building its own proton therapy center,” adds Beth, who participated in a St. Jude protocol that involved traveling to Florida for treatment.
Beth was found to have a rare brain tumor known as craniopharyngioma when she was a college sophomore. After six weeks of daily proton therapy, which lasted from one to two hours each, Beth’s tumor is now smaller.
“St. Jude has given Beth hope, and that was more than any other therapy could offer,” says Beth’s mom.
Beth’s doctor, Thomas Merchant, DO, PhD, division chief
of St. Jude Radiation Oncology, says proton therapy represents the next logical step for the hospital as it remains a world leader in the research and treatment of brain tumors and radiation therapy. Proton therapy can deliver high radiation doses directly to tumors while sparing normal tissues and reducing the side effects of traditional X-ray therapy. Proton therapy’s chief advantage is the ability to control its depth and intensity in tissue. The more precise the beam, the more targeted the therapy.
“It’s very important that we deliver precise treatment to children, and we’ve designed our facility in such a way that when it opens in 2015, it will have one of the narrowest beams in the United States,” says Merchant, who toured leading proton centers throughout the world in researching the project.
In addition to treating brain tumors, the new technology will also be used to treat Hodgkin lymphoma and other solid tumors such as Ewing sarcoma, neuroblastoma and retinoblastoma. Treatment sessions may range from 20 minutes to an hour.
“It’s been wonderful to be able to offer the treatment to our patients at the facility in Florida, but it’s a huge challenge for the families to have to uproot again,” says St. Jude social worker Melanie Russell. “When we have our own treatment facility here, it will be so much easier for our families.”
The new tower housing the facility will also include expanded surgical suites, an advanced Intensive Care Unit, the new Computational Biology department and a global education and collaboration center.