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Proton Therapy Is Another Tool To Fight Cancer


Aired 8/12/10

More and more people are surviving cancer in the United States. Health officials say earlier diagnosis and improved treatments are major factors. Scripps Health is building a new treatment center that will give cancer patients another tool to combat their disease.

— More and more people are surviving cancer in the United States. Health officials say earlier diagnosis and improved treatments are major factors.

Scripps Health officials broke ground on a new proton therapy cancer center o...
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Above: Scripps Health officials broke ground on a new proton therapy cancer center on Aug. 5, 2010.

Scripps Health is building a new treatment center that will give cancer patients another tool to combat their disease.

Darrel Wilson is fighting for his life.

The battle began two years ago, when Wilson had surgery to remove his cancerous prostate. He says it took a while to recover from that.

"And then the hormone treatment started, and that really wiped me out," says Wilson. "When I got the news that the PSA level was going back up after they took me off the hormone treatment, that was very devastating. So it's been a series of ups and downs, and hopes and dashed hopes."

The higher level in Wilson's blood indicates his cancer might be back. So now he's on an eight-week course of radiation therapy.

Wilson is trying to stay positive.

"You're fighting something you can't see," Wilson says. "You know, it hits you emotionally and you don't know where it's coming from, it's just all of sudden, boom, it's there. And you want to fight back, and the only way you can fight back, I think, is with your attitude."

Soon, cancer patients in San Diego will have another tool to help them fight back. It's called proton therapy.

One week ago, in Kearny Mesa, officials from Scripps Health broke ground on a new proton therapy treatment center.

Scripps CEO Chris Van Gorder says the $185-million center will be really impressive when it opens in three years.

"You're going to see a facility a little over 100,000 square feet," Van Gorder points out. "The machine itself is three stories tall. There's three movable gantries, this is literally where this several ton machine will rotate around the patient to be able to bring the protons minutely targeted to the cancer."

The machine is a 90-ton cyclotron. It will generate protons that will be fired into patient's cancerous cells.

Advocates say one of proton therapy's advantages is it spares surrounding tissues from needless exposure to radiation.

Dr. Prabhakar Tripuraneni heads up radiation oncology at Scripps Clinic. He says there are seven other proton therapy centers in the U.S. But he says some of them use older technology.

"Our machine that we are going to install here," says Tripuraneni, "will come up with the newer technology and the newer advances, that actually opens up the possibility that we could potentially improve the cure rates."

But the jury is still out on whether proton therapy is superior to conventional radiation treatments.

"Until we have head to head scientific comparisons," says Dr. Arno Mundt, "We're not going to be able to say one is better or worse than another."

Dr. Arno Mundt chairs the radiation oncology department at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center.

He says when proton therapy first came on board in the early 90's, it was clearly superior to traditional forms of radiation therapy.

"However in the last 20 years, conventional radiotherapy has improved, tremendously; intensity modulated, image guidant radiotherapy," says Mundt. "We now focus treatment better, limit the doses to normal tissues, thereby limiting the side effects. And so, that gap has decreased."

Mundt says proton therapy is preferred when treating children, because of its ability to minimize collateral damage.

Mundt says UCSD is planning to build a proton therapy center of its own.

For now, Darrel Wilson is hoping traditional radiation therapy will kill his cancer. In a month or so, he'll have another blood test.

"After that, we either celebrate like crazy, or we go onto round 16," Wilson says. "You know, it's a heavyweight fight. Maybe I'll win it."

Federal health officials say the cancer survival rate has risen from 50 percent in the 1970s to 68 percent today. Even so, some 55,000 Californians will die from cancer this year.

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Avatar for user 'JaidaQ'

JaidaQ | August 13, 2010 at 3:09 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

I am curious about this thing, how could this possibly help those who were suffering from cancer? And you know I'm also glad that our doctors don't stop on searching on different cure from any diseases especially the cure for a cancer. Thanks a lot and hope that you'll never stop searching those cure for any kind of cancer.

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Avatar for user 'rsfmd'

rsfmd | August 15, 2010 at 11:14 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

What a wonderful news for San Diego residents. Now, they don't have to travel far for this latest cancer treatment. This also good for San Diego business and put San Diego on the "map" of cancer care.
Just curious about the comments from the UCSD doctor.

1) Proton has been around much longer before 1990 ( the first patient was treated at Lawrence Berkley national lab in the 1950's, and since then there have been > 60,000 patients treated worldwide)

2) He stated that the "conventional radiation" catches up with proton, but then say UCSD is in pursue of proton. It is almost like saying:
"my hamburger is as good as your steak, but I will try to get a steak any way"
Just does not make sense to me.

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Avatar for user 'sd_resident'

sd_resident | August 28, 2010 at 1:21 a.m. ― 6 years, 6 months ago

so scripps is already building a proton that can serve san diego, and now ucsd announces that they are going to build another? i can't imagine we need two of them in the county....why on earth would ucsd waste so much of OUR money to build something that we don't need?? ucsd gets a bunch of money from the state because they are supposed to be serving the SD community but they don't seem to be very worried about doing what is right for us!

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Avatar for user 'djoear'

djoear | September 1, 2010 at 7:57 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

As a prostate cancer patient who was treated with Proton Beam Therapy (PBT) at Loma Linda, less than two hours north of San Diego, I would like to address some of the statements and in my mind, misconceptions, presented in this article.

A message for Darrel:

Darrel, I'm sorry to hear that your surgery was not as successful as you hoped for, but it sounds like you're kind of grasping at straws right now. My suggestion is that you call the James Slater Proton Center at Loma Linda Medical Center the first thing tomorrow morning and discuss your situation. They have an excellent track record with "salvage". That's the term they use for the treatment for people who's initial treatment didn't work. I don't know what they will tell you but I guarantee they will give the straight word on the full range of options - they are good people.

So now - why proton?

1) Proton works different from conventional radiation. Conventional radiation has its highest radiation level as it enters the body, drops as it progresses through the body and the target and keeps going. To get the necessary amount of radiation to the target, it has to start high and after the beam passes through the target it still gets other tissue. Proton on the other hand, behaves totally differently. As protons pass through body tissue, they slow down and stop. When they stop, the bulk of the energy releases in a big burst called the Bragg Peak. What that means is that the entry energy is low, the medical team can control where the energy is released - the tumor, and there is no exit energy on the other side of the target. The end result is that most of the energy is deposited at the target and tissues on both the entry and exit sides have considerably less exposure than from other forms of radiation.

2) Dr. Mundt is kind of right - there have been no head to head scientific comparisons. Studies on survival rates show that most prostate cancer treatment approaches have roughly identical 5 year survival rates. However, what is not discussed are quality of life after treatment issues. Those of us who have been through PBT generally feel that the risk and intensity of both the short-term and long-term side effects are much less with proton than with the other treatments. But there have been no studies looking at the this - until now. A study out of Michigan is currently being conducted to look at this.

3) Loma Linda started doing PBT on prostate cancer 20 years ago. They now address over 40 cancers including certain types of breast cancer. The approach works and it IS successful.

Why more centers? Because as the word is getting out demand is out stripping the supply. Proton centers are costly, but as more come on line, the costs will come down and several companies are working on new generations of new PBT that should bring costs down even more.

For more information, visit: or

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