University of Maryland to build proton cancer treatment center

$200 million project to open in 2014 at West Baltimore BioPark

  • William Regine, chairman of the medical school's department of radiation oncology, answers questions about the proposed proton cancer center. E. Albert Reece, M.D. vice president for Medical Affairs, in the background.
William Regine, chairman of the medical school's department… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
October 14, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

The University of Maryland's growing BioPark in West Baltimore will get a $200 million boost from plans announced Wednesday by the School of Medicine to team with private partners on a state-of-the-art proton cancer treatment center.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown said the center would create 325 construction jobs, 110 permanent jobs and attract 2,000 patients a year. "It will also continue the state's and Baltimore City's investment in the communities of West Baltimore," he said.

Slated for completion in 2014, the new therapy center would provide noninvasive outpatient treatment for a variety of cancers, with a promise of more precise radiation targeting of tumors and fewer side effects, especially for children.

Dr. E. Albert Reece, vice president for medical affairs at the university, said the school's "world-class expertise" in cancer treatment brought the project to Baltimore, together with "anticipated private investment of $200 million and the addition of new highly skilled, high-paying jobs to operate the center."

The university joins a growing number of medical centers where proton treatment centers are being built, despite some dispute over the enormous construction costs, higher treatment costs and a scarcity of clinical data showing that the therapy saves more lives than conventional X-ray treatments.

"There are a lot of computer simulations which suggest [proton therapy] may be better. But there are no comparative clinical data, head-to-head comparisons," said Dr. Bhadrasian Vikram, chief of the clinical radiation oncology branch of the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Still, news of the proposed center at the university's growing West Baltimore BioPark drew nothing but praise during Wednesday's announcement.

At present, university officials said, the nearest proton therapy center is in Philadelphia, one of only nine such facilities in the United States.

"This is the next-generation improvement in radiation oncology," said Dr. William F. Regine, chairman of the medical school's department of radiation oncology.

"It allows us the unprecedented ability to deliver a targeted dose of lifesaving radiation therapy to the tumor while minimizing radiation to the healthy tissue. … This technology is a powerful new addition to our toolbox for fighting cancer."

To make it happen, the School of Medicine's faculty practice plan — the University of Maryland Radiation Oncology Associates — signed an agreement with Advanced Particle Therapy of Minden, Nev., to begin "a final exploratory phase" for development of the 100,000-square-foot center.

The school's faculty would provide management and therapeutic services — including physician services and medical direction — for what will be called the Maryland Proton Therapy Center.

The facility would be designed, built, equipped and owned by a corporate entity called the Maryland Proton Therapy Center LLC, which will in turn be owned by Advanced Particle Therapy. The $200 million cost will be borne by private investors. The exact location of the facility in the BioPark has not been determined.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat whose district includes the West Baltimore neighborhood, said that while he is "excited about the jobs, excited about this BioPark …more than anything, it's the hope."

Anyone who has had cancer, or accompanied a loved one to treatment sessions, he said, "understands that people are just grasping for hope." The center "will bring state-of-the-art treatment right here to my neighborhood. It's bigger than the jobs, because there's nothing more valuable than life."

Advanced Particle Therapy played a similar role in the development of a proton therapy center in San Diego, with the Scripps Health and Scripps Clinic Medical Group.

More proton centers are in the works around the country, a building boom sparked, in part, by decisions by Medicare and private health insurers to begin paying for the treatments.

But while the technology does promise to minimize damage to healthy tissue, there is as yet little clinical evidence that it will save more lives than conventional radiation therapies.

"We don't know whether it is better or worse, or the same," said Vikram of the National Cancer Institute. "From my perspective, there's no substitute for clinical trials." Some of the first trials, limited to lung cancer, are now under way at Massachusetts General Hospital and other centers, he said.

The notion of treating cancer with protons dates back to the early 1960s, according to Lester Boeh, a vice president with Varian Medical Systems, which will build the University of Maryland's proton equipment. It has been used successfully on some cancers of the eye, head and neck and in childhood cancers.

But because the early systems were built independently by university researchers, each one was different. "In order to get good long clinical data, you need consistency," he said.

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