The Promise of Proton-Beam Therapy

This radiation treatment for cancer pinpoints tumors with precision—but not everyone can get it.

A radiation therapist at M.D. Anderson moves Glaros into position. The rotating device above him, which is connected to a particle accelerator, will fire protons at his tumor.

A radiation therapist at M.D. Anderson moves Glaros into position. The rotating device above him, which is connected to a particle accelerator, will fire protons at his tumor.

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"Prostate mill." In suburban Chicago, the two expansion strategies are at odds. Two centers have been proposed within just a few miles of each other. One would be run by Northern Illinois University as an academic facility; the other by Central DuPage Hospital, which has partnered with ProCure. "To roll out multiple facilities competing against each other is illogical and a waste of resources," says Thornton. An Illinois planning board validated that viewpoint in early April when it denied the latter proposal. Thornton adds that bottom-line considerations could turn a for-profit facility into what he calls a "prostate mill."

Central DuPage plans to appeal. The Chicago area has enough demand, including from some prostate cancer patients, to support as many as six proton centers, says ProCure CEO Hadley Ford. With so many cancer patients lacking access to the technology, he says, the country needs a nationwide network of proton facilities, which is exactly what his company plans to build. And while academic proton centers have been slow to get off the ground, he adds, his company is ready to start building today.

Meanwhile, proton beam technology itself is rapidly advancing. The existing American centers are on the verge of upgrading to what's called intensity modulated proton beam therapy, a beam upgrade that will make it more accurate. Also in the works: drastically cheaper and more compact systems, which are crucial for solving the availability problem. One company, Still River Systems, is working on a system that would fit in one room and cost about $20 million. The device is neither finished nor Food and Drug Administration approved, but eager hospitals are already placing orders.