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First Proton Treatment Facility Planned For Arkansas To Fight Cancer

The Proton Therapy Center at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. A consortium of healthcare providers in Arkansas have announced plans to build the first state's first proton treatment
Romina Cialdella
Wikimedia Commons

Cancer patients in Arkansas will soon have an alternative to radiation therapy, which can damage healthy tissues and have long-term consequences.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Baptist Health and Proton International have signed a letter of intent to build a proton treatment center at the UAMS Radiation Oncology Center in Little Rock. In a joint announcement, the consortium said the center will be the first such facility in Arkansas and one of about 40 nationwide.

Dr. Michael Birrer, director of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, says proton therapy effectively and specifically targets cancerous tumors with less toxicity compared to radiation therapy. It will be the basis of many new and novel clinical trials, he said, benefitting patients through reduced side effects while moving cancer research forward.

In an interview with KUAR's Michael Hibblen, Dr. Birrer, said proton therapy’s biggest advantage is "the complete lowering of toxicity for the patient. Where this becomes a real value — it’s a value in many patients — is in children, where we worry tremendously about long-term toxicity of … radiation therapy."

A transcription of the edited interview can be read below:

DR. BIRRER: So traditional radiation uses photons, gamma rays; and, among other things, when they penetrate the body, they radiate and expose radiation to all the tissues that they touch. When you radiate, for instance, a lung cancer patient, those gamma rays — those photons — penetrate the chest and go to the tumor, and then they go out the back; they just keep traveling. And so you get obviously effective radiation of the tumor, but you also radiate a lot of normal, healthy tissues, and that’s what we call radiation toxicity. That’s frequently important for the quality of life of the cancer patient, and it’s also a rate limiting step— there’s only so much radiation you can expose healthy tissues to.

Protons are different particles than photons, and protons have an interesting physics associated with them. As the protons enter the body, it’s not radioactive; when it slows its speed, it releases radioactivity. So you can immediately imagine the advantage of proton therapy. If you aim it at that lung cancer, the protons enter the chest, but they’re not radioactive, so there’s no damage to the tissues. If you understand the physics correctly and you design it right, the proton will slow down right at the tumor. It’s very precise; it’s very spectacular technology. It will, in certain cases, be more effective for the tumor. Probably it’s biggest advantage is the complete lowering of toxicity for the patient. Where this becomes a real value— it’s a value in many patients— is in children, where we worry tremendously about the long-term toxicity of the therapies we give, particularly radiation therapy, because children are going to be around for a long time, and they’re going to grow. They have growing tissues.

How long has this [proton therapy] been around?

Proton therapy was invented — it probably goes 40 years when I was at [Massachusette General Hospital] up in 1982 doing my internship; they were really working on the whole technology. We’re very excited about it. It’s cutting edge and will be very important for our patients. We also think that it will allow us to do some proton beam research, meaning that we maybe find new uses for it in creating clinical trials for cancer patients.

How many patients do you anticipate once this opens?

We did a pro forma analysis, because one of the challenges is that it is expensive therapy, and applies to a subset of patients. There’s been a small number of centers which have not been financially viable. Most of them were built 15 years ago and they essentially overbuilt what we call vaults, meaning there are too many machines in one building. So, we did all those calculations and between Baptist, Children’s and UAMS, the numbers were very comfortable that this will be a financially solid and solvent operation. We think 25% of the patients will come from Children’s, and the other 75% will be adults.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
Phoebe Sanders was an intern for KUAR's news department from December 2019 through August 2020. She is graduate in 2021 from Episcopal Collegiate School, and hopes to study political science and religious studies in college.
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