SALT LAKE CITY — A special cancer therapy technology designed to reduce radiation side effects will be available in Utah beginning in 2020, likely serving about 200 patients each year from around the region, the Huntsman Cancer Institute announced.
The treatment, called intensity modulated proton therapy, is tailored to treat cancerous tumors with more precision, limiting radiation's effects on surrounding parts of the body, said Dr. David Gaffney, senior director of clinical research for the Huntsman Cancer Institute and vice chairman of the University of Utah's Department of Radiation Oncology.
"It's a huge improvement on previous technologies," Gaffney told the Deseret News. "Organs adjacent to the tumor are receiving a lower dose of radiation therapy, and that's the advantage."
Gaffney said that of the roughly 1-in-3 Americans who are diagnosed with cancer, about half receive radiation therapy.
For several types of cancer, patients "can be well-treated" with other radiation therapies, he said, but for tumors affecting the brain, head or neck, proton therapy is seen as the best option due to concerns about the risk of significant side effects of treatment.
"It's particularly useful when there's a critical organ nearby," Gaffney said. "It can be very helpful in the head and neck region, where there are sensitive structures very close (to the tumor). ... The benefit to the patient is that normal structures receive less radiation while the tumor receives the same or perhaps higher radiation dose."
He added that "a major goal amongst oncologists ... (is) to hit the tumor, and we want to miss normal organs, or what we call organs at risk."
"In a head and neck cancer, there can be pretty significant side effects from radiation therapy, and proton beam therapy can significantly reduce those side effects."
The institute says proton therapy technology, which carries proton beams about the width of a pencil to a designated site, is also sometimes utilized for various childhood cancers, as well as for adults suffering from lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, esophageal cancer and prostate cancer.
Gaffney said that while proton therapy "is not for every single cancer patient," he estimates anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of those who are receiving radiation treatment could significantly benefit from it.
Dr. John Sweetenham, senior director of clinical affairs at Huntsman Cancer Institute and professor of medicine at the U., said the institute has long been closely monitoring studies into the efficacy of proton therapy.
"We have observed research in the effectiveness of proton therapy over the past several years. After extensive analysis, we determined it was an important investment to make in order to bring this technology to our patients here in the Mountain West," Sweetenham said in a statement.
Gaffney credited recent strides in the technology's accuracy, as well as improving imaging methods, for having "allowed proton beam (therapy) to take off around the world" and to be given the green light at the institute.
"I think it's really wonderful (for) patients in the region and patients across Utah and all across the Intermountain West," Gaffney said. "We're serving a big need."
Currently, the nearest medical centers capable of proton therapy are in central California and southern Arizona. The Huntsman Cancer Institute says it refers upward of 40 patients annually for out-of-state treatment using that therapy, which can require nearly daily visits for up to several weeks at a time.
Once the institute has its own center by the fall of 2020, it is expected to serve about 200 patients each year.
The project is expected to cost anywhere from $25 million to $35 million, Gaffney said.
"The process to build these units is significant," he said.
It's likely the new center will result in a small number of additional hires, according to Gaffney.
Huntsman Cancer Institute spokeswoman Debby Rogers said the institute, Huntsman Cancer Hospital and Huntsman Cancer Foundation have all "agreed to dedicate the required funding to the project."
"HCI leaders will initiate a public bidding process to identify an appropriate supplier," Rogers wrote in a release.
She added that "the proposed location for this new technology will be at the south end of the cancer hospital."
Jon Huntsman Sr., the billionaire philanthropist who is the institute's namesake and founder, said in a statement that "bringing proton therapy to Utah is completely in keeping with the vision we had when we founded HCI over two decades ago."
“I remain absolutely committed to ensure that our patients have access to the very best equipment and expertise to fight their cancer," said Huntsman, who also founded and is chairman emeritus of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. "Proton therapy is yet another tool we will bring to our patients to give them the best possible outcomes against this dreadful disease.”