Changing the way cancer is treated

Christian McGrath, now 8, underwent proton therapy at UF in 2009.

A positively charged part of an atom called a proton speeds to two-thirds the speed of light and is injected into a metal tube called a beamline. Guided by powerful electromagnets, it arcs into a 30-foot-tall gantry that looks like a Ferris wheel. Gently turning, the gantry carefully points a treatment nozzle to target the proton’s final destination, a cancerous tumor that is threatening a human life.

This story repeats daily, Monday through Friday, from 6 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. as a steady stream of patients of all ages receive proton therapy at the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville.

Since treating its first patient on Aug. 14, 2006, the Southeast’s only proton therapy center has delivered more than 73,000 treatments to more than 2,200 patients. This statistic places it among the top 10 proton therapy centers in the world in the number of patients treated. Quite an accomplishment for a facility that is only four years old, especially considering many centers have been treating patients for decades.

The daily treatment schedule is timed to optimize the number of patients, a necessity with such a rare resource. There are only seven proton therapy facilities in the U.S. and 30 in the world. Only a handful are in development.

With 98 percent of patients on a clinical study, the UF Proton Therapy Institute is gathering important data on patient outcomes. A significant area of study is pediatrics. Last year the institute entered into a joint study with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to improve treatment and outcomes for children under the age of 3 who suffer from rare brain tumors.

Other areas of treatment and study include lymphoma, sarcoma and cancers of the head and neck, lung, brain, central nervous system, pancreas, breast and prostate. Last year, medical director Nancy P. Mendenhall, M.D., presented benchmark results of a prostate cancer study that shows minimal side effects for patients treated with proton therapy.

In its fifth year, the institute is looking forward to opening its fixed beam room, where it will treat eye cancers and other eye disorders.

— Theresa Edwards Makrush

UF Innovations

  • Pioneered the use of a fiducial marker (a small gold pellet) implanted in the prostate to precisely target the proton dose, a technique adopted by other proton therapy centers in the U.S.
  • Performed the first uniform scanning treatment using IBA equipment in 2009 to enable treatment of larger tumors and tumors situated deeper in the body
  • Entered into an agreement with the United Kingdom to treat pediatric and other qualified patients; first patient treated in December 2009.
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Fall 2010

From the Director’s Desk

We want to cure cancer. We want to catch it early if we can. But even if we can’t, we want to cure it anyway. Here at the University of Florida Shands Cancer Center, we are committed to finding innovative ways to treat this disease, and ultimately, cure it.

Changing the Way Cancer is Treated

The University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville has delivered more than 73,000 treatments to more than 2,200 patients, placing it among the top 10 proton therapy centers in the world.

A Healing Space

Perched on a bed in a room overlooking Paynes Prairie, Teresa Hughes adjusts the fuzzy brown cap she’s wearing and recalls the day in June when she couldn’t ignore how sick she felt anymore.


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