First proton therapy center in Arkansas nears completion with cyclotron delivery
Cancer patients in Arkansas will soon have a new treatment option with fewer side effects.
Officials with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences on Thursday celebrated the delivery of a cyclotron, a 55-ton instrument which will be a key component of the first proton therapy facility in Arkansas.
Dr. Michael Birrer, director of the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, says proton therapy differs from traditional photon radiation treatments in that it doesn’t affect the DNA of surrounding healthy tissue.
“You wouldn’t feel a thing, your skin would be fine, your muscles would be fine. And then as the proton slows down its speed, it releases energy. So you get these really smart radiation oncologists who calculate the physics of this so that the protons will target the tumor and deliver the radiation right at the tumor,” Birrer said.
Proton therapy uses an accelerator to direct charged particles directly into cancer cells, and is particularly useful for hard-to-reach solid tumors. It is often used alongside other common cancer treatments like surgery and chemotherapy. Birrer says the treatment is especially useful for pediatric cancer patients, limiting their chance of developing complications later in life from radiation exposure.
“You’ve got young kids with developing organs, and they’re going to live a long time because we can effectively treat them. So toxicity becomes incredibly important,” Birrer said. “Proton therapy was almost essentially invented for childhood cancers, that’s why [Arkansas Children’s Hospital] is one of our partners on this.”
Baptist Health is also partnering with UAMS and Arkansas Children’s on the new proton therapy center, which is expected to begin treating patients next September. It’s part of a new radiation oncology facility on the UAMS campus, expected to cost about $65 million.
Amy Allen, director of the Cancer and Blood Disorder Center at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, says having the treatment available will greatly benefit their patients.
“It has been a dream and an idea for many, many years. There are very few proton centers in the country, and so to be able to bring this to our state to be able to keep our kids close to home for their care, as well as the other Arkansans that we’ll be able to serve, is really, really important,” Allen said.
The cyclotron was installed Thursday following a roughly two-month journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Antwerp, Belgium via Houston.
"From Houston, it was transported by flatbed truck with a caravan... and the trucks couldn't go faster than 20 miles an hour. Because it's a delicate instrument, you don't want this thing bouncing up and down," Birrer said.
Once open, the Proton Center of Arkansas will be the only such facility in the state, and one of just 41 in the U.S.