100th patient receives state-of-the-art cancer treatment

Proton therapy damages cancer cells so they stop dividing

ORLANDO, Fla. – An advanced cancer treatment center for proton therapy treated its 100th patient less than a year after opening its doors.

The UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health opened The Marjorie and Leonard Williams Center for Proton Therapy in April 2016. Since then, 100 patients have received state-of-the-art cancer treatment, including 17-year-old Javier Ruiz, who has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"When they first told me it was, like, kind of surprising because, like, you wouldn't expect that at a young age, kind of shocking," Ruiz said in an interview with Orlando Health.

Radiation oncologist Naren R. Ramakrishna, MD, PhD, at Orlando Health, said when he reviewed Ruiz's case, he knew the young patient would be a match for proton therapy.

"He needed it the most because we were concerned with his long-term lung function and we were concerned about damage to his adjacent heart and we can really limit that damage using proton therapy," Ramakrishna said.

The treatment pinpoints tumors by releasing energy inside as a large burst, damaging the DNA of cancer cells so that they stop dividing.

"Proton therapy is an extremely advanced form of cancer treatment, currently there's about 25 centers in the U.S. offering proton therapy, but 10 years ago there were only a handful of centers in the world," Ramakrishna said.

In the 10 months since the center opened in Orlando, Ramakrishna said 20 percent of patients have been children, 20 percent have been patients with brain cancer.  More recently, the center has been able to expand to include patients with prostate, lung, breast, head and neck cancers.

A drawback to the treatment is that it's expensive and not always covered by insurance.

"I think it's vital for getting more availability of proton therapy that we track our results and show that they're better. And that's actually one of the reasons why proton therapy is not actually spread and reimbursed better is because there hasn't been a lot of results published about it," Ramakrishna said.

He said so far, the doctors at the UF Cancer Center in Orlando have been very excited by what they've seen. Patients were having fewer side effects, and tumor responses were good.

"There were so few centers for so many years and they were treating rare tumors, but now we're treating more common tumors and we should be able to get results on these patients," Ramakrishna said.

There are efforts to make proton therapy treatment easier to access. Virginia House Bill 1656, is making progress. If passed, it would make it harder for insurance companies to hold proton therapy to a higher standard as treatment option.

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