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Future of proton therapy: Technology, demand drive growth

par Leonard Arzt, Executive Director, Nat. Asso. for Proton Therapy | March 03, 2017
Rad Oncology Proton Therapy
From the March 2017 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

I’ve written many chapters over several decades as an advocate and defender of proton therapy. As the voice of the proton community, I’ve talked with thousands of patients, numerous investors and hospital executives, and countless reporters. From my historical perspective, patient demand will drive strong growth, reimbursement challenges and negotiations will likely continue as insurers deny coverage for certain disease sites while the proton community pushes back aggressively and patients pressure payers. Radiation oncologists have become more open and receptive to the superiority of proton therapy.

Most acknowledge the treatment has tremendous potential, but more work is needed to demonstrate what it can do. I especially look forward to the introduction of the first U.S. heavy ion-carbon facility. Overall, the total number of particle therapy treatment rooms is expected to rise to approximately 1,800 worldwide for patient care. But first, a look in my rearview mirror. I met Robert R. Wilson, Ph.D., on the occasion of Loma Linda’s fifth anniversary.

Dr. Wilson was guest of honor when one of the treatment gantries was named for him. A humble man, he was a heck of a scientist. He was embarrassed when referred to as the “father of proton therapy.” He worked on the

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Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. As a team player, he put together an all-star group of physicists that conceived, developed, built and operated Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). Needless to say, he is the father of proton therapy. He published a paper 71 years ago titled “Radiological Use of Fast Protons" (Journal of Radiology, 1946), establishing the fundamental tenets and techniques being followed today at proton therapy facilities around the world. He championed the peaceful use of atomic energy he helped to unleash. His legacy is generations of successful patient care.

Fast forward to March 17, 1989. The day The Wall Street Journal found out about proton therapy and published the first-ever mainstream news article, on its front page, no less. Questioning cost, benefits and need. The headline screamed: Proton Device to Fight Cancer Is a Boondoggle or a Breakthrough? The occasion was the development of the world’s first hospital-based proton center at Loma Linda University Medical Center. However, in one word, Dr. James M. Slater explained it. “Control … the physician can control the proton. Nobody can control the photon.”

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