UCSD Health Builds Proton Center to Treat Cancer

UCSD Health and the department of radiation oncology have announced plans to build a proton therapy center for cancer treatment and research.

The center — built in collaboration with Proton Health Partners, LLC — will be located near the UCSD Moores Cancer Center, by Thornton Hospital. UCSD is currently negotiating a land lease with the UC Board of Regents for a site in the UCSD Science Research Park.

The project is the brainchild of Radiation Department Chair Arno Mundt and Chief of UCSD’s Pediatric Oncology Service Kevin Murphy.

It was proposed by a workgroup launched in 2007 by the dean of the medical school to determine the feasibility of the project.
Proton therapy is an extremely aggressive cancer treatment available at only at a handful of centers worldwide. It was first used experimentally in the 1950s and works by delivering high doses of targeted radiation to dangerous tumor cells while leaving the surrounding healthy tissue untouched.

Proton therapy is often used for treating cancers near critical organs — such as eyes, brain, lungs, spine, breast and prostate — due to its high level of precision. It is also used for treating children whose bodies are less capable of withstanding radiation damage.

“Proton therapy is the most cutting edge form of radiation therapy today,” Mundt said. “[It] is a critical tool for the future of fighting cancer … and is one of the necessary tools a comprehensive medical center [such as UCSD] should have in its arsenal to combat cancer.”

Proton Health Partners, a private company in San Diego, will be financing the estimated $205 million project. The center will eventually be staffed by UCSD medical specialists and will serve as both a treatment and research center.

“By combining UCSD’s growing department of radiation oncology with Proton Health Partners’ nearly 20 years of proton treatment experiment, we are building one of the strongest proton treatment teams in the nation,” Mundt said. “[After interviewing] many groups which were interested in developing proton centers, we liked Proton Health Partners because it looked at this opportunity primarily for the benefit of cancer patients and not just as a business opportunity.”

UCSD’s new proton center was announced the same week that another company, Advance Particle Therapy, began pouring concrete for another proton therapy center in Mira Mesa. APT is partnering with Scripps Health.

“I’d be pleasantly surprised if the region could support two proton centers,” Lenard Artz, Executive Director of the National Association of Proton Therapy, said. The National Association of Proton Therapy is a Maryland-based nonprofit that promotes the treatment.

Both companies said they are not concerned about competition.

“We believe there is room for two, maybe three players in San Diego [which] will draw patients from around the world,” Proton Health Partners CEO Neil Fox said.

The UCSD center will focus on pediatric care in proton therapy. Fox said this could also help reduce any financing or competition problems and will be beneficial to the recent partnership between Rady Children’s Hospital and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Mundt has said that Loma Linda — the first American proton center — has a research contract with NASA and he hopes to do similar collaborations in the future.

“Numerous research opportunities exist with NASA,” he said. “A proton center on the UCSD campus allows UCSD to be able to compete for these research dollars.”
Ground breaking for the center is planned for 2011. The first patient will be admitted in 2014.