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Hampton University testing "paradigm-shifting" cancer treatment technology at Proton Therapy Institute

The new proton therapy machine named after Marie Curie by Leo Cancer Care. The patient sits upright in the middle. (Image courtesy of Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute.)
The new proton therapy machine named after Marie Curie by Leo Cancer Care. The patient sits upright in the middle. (Image courtesy of Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute.)

The Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute opened a little over a dozen years ago to offer an expensive but innovative approach to fighting cancer. 

It was among the first U.S. treatment centers to use proton therapy, institute officials say. 

Now they’re investing in another new treatment method, one that has never been used on people and “represents a paradigm shift in the field,” chief medical physicist Alejandro Carabe said in a statement.

Over the next three years, the institute will test the new machine called Marie, named after famed Polish physicist Marie Curie who was a pioneer in the field of radioactivity. 

The machine comes from Leo Cancer Care. It’s similar to the current method but pushes it a few steps forward.

Proton therapy uses high-powered energy from proton particles to target cancerous tumors, as opposed to traditional radiation treatment, which uses X-rays. 

Advocates say the technique is more precise and causes fewer side effects for patients. 

The Mayo Clinic, which has its own proton therapy clinic, says it’s unclear pending further research whether it’s more effective at prolonging patient lives.

HUPTI’s treated more than 4,000 patients with the method since 2010, encompassing a wide range of types of cancer, said marketing director Tiffany Rodgers. Nearly a tenth of patients travel from out of state.

Physicist Cynthia Keppel with Jefferson Lab in Newport News has been involved since the institute’s inception. Scientists with the lab helped set up particle accelerators needed to produce the proton beam used for the therapy.

Keppel, Jefferson Lab’s associate director for experimental nuclear physics, said X-rays travel fully through a patient’s body, affecting not only cancerous tissue but healthy tissue as collateral damage.

The benefit of proton therapy is the science behind how the particles move, she said. The protons don’t lose energy and travel beyond the tumor to affect healthy areas.

The barrier to expanding the treatment thus far has been the equipment’s cost and complexity, Keppel said.

It’s been called “the single most expensive medical device ever built,” per The Lancet Oncology journal.

Patients undergoing proton therapy at HUPTI currently have to lay flat on a table while several gantry systems move around them, Keppel said. 

Those systems are three stories tall and weigh 90 tons.

The Marie would allow patients to instead sit upright, and slowly spin the chair around while the proton beam technology stays put. 

“This is a smaller, compact, less expensive device,” Keppel said. “More hospitals and places will buy these things, I think. So that's the real goal from the proton therapy standpoint is to roll this out into … the world instead of being really a lucky select few like Hampton Roads.”

Jefferson Lab plans to study the best way to do imaging with the new device. The better the early imaging of a tumor, the easier it is for clinicians to target it with the beam.

Rodgers said the new upright position is also more comfortable for patients.

“We're going to be able to treat patients in a more humane way,” she said. “We'll be able to look at them, eye contact, be able to see how they're feeling and how they're experiencing the treatment.”

HUPTI won’t be treating anyone with the Marie for about three years. 

That includes installing the equipment, doing research on “phantom patients” and working toward approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.