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Proton therapy opens in Utah

The new center is the first and only of its kind in the region.

Patients, doctors, scientists, donors and community members gathered to mark the opening of a major new resource for cancer care in Utah. The Senator Orrin G. Hatch Proton Therapy Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is the first of its kind in the Mountain West and one of only 37 such centers nationwide.

The $31 million, 7,450-square-foot addition adds to an array of radiation therapy technology and expertise available within University of Utah Health. The center was named to honor Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s longstanding commitment to improving the landscape for cancer care in Utah. Senator Hatch was among the earliest supporters when Jon M. Huntsman Sr. announced his intent to build a major new cancer research center in Utah. “Huntsman Cancer Institute offers patients an indispensable palliative—hope. Hope, that powerful medicine of the soul, is what animates the Institute’s mission: hope that our doctors can find a cure; hope that our loved ones can find relief; and hope that someday, hopefully someday soon, we can defeat this disease once and for all,” said Hatch. “I have no doubt that the Senator Orrin G. Hatch Proton Therapy Center will play a critical role in this effort. To have my name affiliated with an institution that is synonymous with hope and healing is among the greatest honors of my lifetime.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, nearly half of all cancer patients receive some type of radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses beams of energy to kill or shrink a tumor. It is often used in combination with other types of cancer treatment such as surgery and/or chemotherapy.

Proton therapy is a newer, more sophisticated type of radiation therapy that uses particles called protons instead of photons or electrons used in other radiation treatments. This difference reduces the radiation dose to nearby healthy tissue. Studies show patients have fewer and less serious side effects from proton therapy than traditional radiation therapy.

Up until now, the nearest proton therapy centers were over 700 miles away. Utahns with cancer who needed proton therapy have had to temporarily relocate during the treatment course, which typically lasts four to six weeks, five days a week. Patients would have to choose between major disruptions to their lives or a lifesaving treatment.

Now for the first time, patients in the state and surrounding areas can receive this treatment in Utah.

Proton therapy can be used to treat adults and children with many different types of cancer. Physicians consider many factors before recommending proton therapy. Those factors include the age of the patient, the health of the patient and whether the tumor is located in an area of the body very sensitive to radiation.

“HCI’s newly opened Center for Proton Therapy is a game-changer for patients in our region,” said HCI CEO Mary Beckerle, PhD. “In addition to this innovative clinical resource for patients, HCI will also contribute to advancing research on how proton therapy can be used to its fullest potential.”

According to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, “For the residents of our state, having a treatment like this much closer to home and family is critical. The Center for Proton Therapy underscores the incredible innovative spirit in our state and brings another critical resource to our work to advance insights into the best ways to deliver world-class care to our citizens, which includes densely populated areas and vast frontiers and rural communities. Together, we will continue to band together to bring hope and healing to cancer patients across Utah and beyond. ”

University of Utah Interim President and Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Michael Good, M.D., added, “It is gratifying to see this major new resource on our campus and in our University of Utah Health system. The team effort that brought this to our campus highlights our approach to marrying expertise and equipment with compassionate, patient-focused care.”

The technology that delivers this treatment is housed in a three-story facility. The equipment includes a 110-ton gantry (a moveable framework that allows the equipment to rotate 190 degrees around the patient), which holds a 15-ton cyclotron. It accelerates protons to two-thirds the speed of light. This precision technology allows the treatment to target the tumor from the best angles and avoid important structures in the body. A team of specially trained medical doctors, technologists, technicians and others work to safely deliver this treatment to adult and pediatric patients as part of their cancer care plan. The new center also includes state-of-the-art tumor targeting, with a special combination of proton treatment delivery and CT imaging for tumor targeting.

Peter Huntsman, chairman and CEO of Huntsman Cancer Foundation, said, “It is a fitting tribute to see this center named in honor of Sen. Hatch. World-class facilities such as the Huntsman Cancer Institute are not built overnight. This institution and the Center for Proton Therapy, are the culmination of decades of dedication from leaders like Sen. Hatch; visionaries such as my parents, Jon and Karen Huntsman; and the gifted researchers, physicians, nurses, volunteers and more than 1 million donors. It is this entire community that we celebrate this day.”

Professor and chair of radiation oncology Dennis Shrieve, M.D., Ph.D., credited the team who brought this to Utah. “With fewer than 40 proton therapy centers in the country, we recognized an incredible opportunity to deploy our extensive radiation therapy expertise at the University of Utah toward bringing this new resource to our patients. The team that brought this to Utah has been exceptionally dedicated. We are humbled by the opportunity to have this resource at HCI and look forward to collaborating with partners at University of Utah Health, Primary Children’s Hospital and across the region.”

When fully operational, the center is projected to care for approximately 200 patients a year.

Project funds included donations to Huntsman Cancer Foundation, including major gifts from Zions Bank and the Semnani Family Foundation. The project was designed by Architectural Nexus and built by Jacobsen Construction. Key project partners include University of Utah Health, Mevion Medical Systems, Siemens, University of Utah Campus Design and Construction and Huntsman Cancer Foundation.