New York City is set to get a new radiation-treatment center, nearly a decade in the making, that uses proton beams to treat cancerous tumors. Called the New York Proton Center, it is a for-profit partnership of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Montefiore Health System and Mount Sinai Health System, managed by the ProHEALTH company. Financing for the center was provided in part by the hospitals.
It will be the first such proton therapy facility in New York state when it starts treating patients in July. It was slated to begin treating patients in 2018 and initially set to cost $300 million. Charles Simone, chief medical officer for the New York Proton Center, estimated that costs may rise closer to $330 million by the time the center opens in East Harlem.
At full capacity, the center will treat about 1,400 patients a year, including some 200 pediatric patients. There are four treatment rooms and every patient will have access to in-house social workers and nutritionists.
Many oncologists say proton therapy can be more effective than standard radiation that uses photons, which is less precise and can damage normal tissue surrounding a tumor. That damage can cause long-term medical problems for some pediatric patients, including growth delays, cardiac complications and secondary cancers, Dr. Simone said.
Proton therapy, on the other hand, can be aimed more precisely to avoid healthy tissue, he said. The technology also can deliver radiation at a higher dose, Dr. Simone said. “Most models suggest that 20% to 30% of patients who are receiving photon therapy would benefit and have better treatment with proton therapy,” Dr. Simone said. “That's way more patients than we can even accommodate.”
The people who most frequently are recommended for the therapy are children, patients who have had a prior course of radiation, and those with tumors in areas that include the brain, head, neck and spine, oncologists say.
Yet some researchers have questioned the overall benefit of proton therapy, which is costlier and sometimes not covered by insurers. For pediatric patients, there is still decades of research to go to understand the long-term benefits to proton therapy, oncologists say. Anuj Goenka, the director of proton services for Northwell Health, which has an affiliation with ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset, N.J., worries that proton therapy is too often advertised as having no side effects. “It's a type of radiation,” he said. “Everything has side effects.”
Oncologists are quick to note that traditional radiation treatment isn't inferior care, and not every patient should travel to receive proton therapy. The 30 proton therapy centers in the U.S. primarily are located in metropolitan areas, according to the National Association for Proton Therapy, an advocacy group.
Traditionally, patients in the New York City area have been referred to two proton therapy facilities in New Jersey, the ProCure center with four treatment rooms, and the Laurie Proton Therapy Center at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, which has one treatment room.
Leaders for the New York Proton Center and the two New Jersey centers say there is sufficient demand for proton therapy in the area. The region is a destination for cancer care, especially for those interested in enrolling in clinical trials, said Rahul Parikh, a radiation oncologist and medical director of the Laurie Proton Therapy Center. He said his institution is considering adding a second treatment room. The growth in the number of patients, he said, partly comes as a halo effect. By having the option of proton therapy, he said, you can attract patients who are “willing to travel the extra hour-and-a-half and pass by four other radiation centers.”
BY MELANIE GRAYCE WEST