Q&A with Gary Larson

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City) |

--Therapy center in OKC utilizes

protons in treatment of cancer

Q: In 1911, the positively charged proton was discovered at the center of the atom. Fast forward 105 years to ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Oklahoma City, where physicians are harnessing the power of protons to treat cancer. When did physicians begin using protons to treat cancer?

A: Proton therapy isn't a new treatment type. It was first used to treat cancer patients at Harvard in 1961 when Massachusetts General Hospital was given access to it one day per week for patient care. For years, patients were only treated for a limited number of tumor types with some patients receiving proton therapy as part of their treatment combined with conventional radiation. In 1990, the nation's first hospital-based proton therapy center was built in Loma Linda, Calif. The center since has successfully treated thousands of patients, contributing to the growing confidence in the treatment and allowing more centers to develop to expand patient access. When Procure Proton Therapy Center in Oklahoma City opened its doors in 2009, it was the sixth proton center in the United States. Today, it's the only proton therapy center in Oklahoma, and there are fewer than two dozen operational centers in the nation with several more under construction.

Q: How does the technology work?

A: Describing how proton therapy works is like explaining something from a sci-fi movie. Hydrogen gas is heated until the protons and electrons can be separated using electrical and magnetic fields. Then the protons are spun inside the cyclotron -- a 220-ton machine weighing as much as a Boeing 747 -- about two-thirds the speed of light before being directed down the proton beam line and into one of the four treatment rooms at the center. Once in the treatment room, the protons pass through a custom-cut piece of brass that forms the beam to each patient's unique tumor shape. Combined with a custom-made "compensator" to fine-tune the proton energy, physicians are able to direct the treatment to the exact depth necessary to treat every nook and cranny of the tumor, while avoiding all of the healthy tissue lying just millimeters beyond the location of the cancer cells.

Q: How have you seen proton therapy help patients?

A: About 70 percent of cancer patients receive radiation therapy as part of their treatment in addition to surgery and chemotherapy, and proton therapy dramatically reduces the side effects associated with radiation treatment. I've been treating patients with radiation therapy for more than 30 years, the last seven of which has included proton therapy. Until I started using proton therapy, I'd have dismissed many of its purported benefits as "theoretical and experimental." However, a vast number of peer-reviewed publications now document the benefits of proton therapy for a wide variety of cancer types. It's incredibly gratifying to be able to cure patients of their cancer without causing them to experience all the side effects associated with conventional radiation therapy.

PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER

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