Cancer therapy center in works

A new $200 million cancer treatment center will allow Atlanta area patients who need the specialized therapy to stay close to home and avoid the added stress of traveling hundreds of miles to an existing facility.

Slated to open in 2015 in a yet-undetermined location, the center will specialize in proton therapy — a more precise and aggressive approach to destroying tumors than conventional X-ray radiation.

The project — a partnership between Emory Healthcare and California-based Advanced Particle Therapy — is the latest in new cancer treatment options for Georgians and patients throughout the Southeast. Illinois-based Cancer Treatment Centers of America, known for less conventional therapies and a holistic approach to care, started construction on a $150 million cancer hospital in Newnan earlier this year.

Many specialists have encouraged Emory for years to find a way to bring proton treatment to the region, said Walter Curran, executive director of the university’s Winship Cancer Institute. Currently, cancer patients who can benefit from the treatment are sent to facilities in Jacksonville or Oklahoma City. Only nine centers exist nationwide, though there are others in the works.

Travel creates extra layers of complexity, stress and expense, said Bill Todd, former CEO of the Georgia Cancer Coalition who now teaches at Georgia Tech.

“It’s traumatic enough to have to deal with advanced therapies for cancer treatment,” Todd said. “The whole family support system is not there to help you.”

Proton therapy involves a controlled beam of protons that more precisely targets tumors, limiting radiation exposure and damage to surrounding healthy tissues.

With traditional X-ray radiation treatment, lower doses are often used to avoid harm to healthy tissues and unwanted side effects. The more targeted proton therapy, however, allows for higher doses while still limiting damage to healthy tissues and vital organs.

More accurate targeting of tumors can be especially beneficial for children who are still developing, Curran said. When radiation hits normal tissues it can stunt growth, he said.

While that may not matter to a 60 year old, “it matters when you’re 6 years old,” he said.

In young children with brain and spinal tumors, doctors hope to avoid areas where their language or hormones are developing, said Dr. Anna Janss, a neuro-oncologist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Aflac Center and Blood Disorders Service. In a girl who is post-puberty, the goal may be to limit radiation exposure to the ovaries, she said.

“It’s a great asset to Atlanta and its children,” said Janss, adding that proton therapy isn’t necessarily the best treatment solution for every cancer.

The roughly 100,000-square-foot facility will be a research tool to study what other cancers proton therapy may be suitable to treat with patients participating in clinical trials, Curran said. It will have five treatment rooms.

While Advanced Particle Therapy will provide funding for the multimillion-dollar project, Emory will staff the facility with more than 100 medical professionals, including radiation oncologists, medical physicists, radiation therapists and others. The center will treat an estimated 1,900 patients each year, according to Emory.

Proton centers in other areas have teamed up with academic institutions that can document long-term benefits through clinical trials like Emory, which received the National Cancer Institute’s cancer center designation in 2009, Todd said.

“It’s a responsibility to provide leading-edge services at the earliest possible moment,” he said.

Advanced Particle also has projects in the works in San Diego and Baltimore, CEO Jeff Bordok said.

If approved by the state, construction on the Atlanta project — which could be located in Midtown — would begin next year with the center slated to open to patients in 2015.

“It’s cutting-edge technology,” Bordok said. “It works extremely well, and it’s only getting better.”