Why Aren’t There More Proton Therapy Centers?


Published: Jan 17, 2014 at 08:30 AM EST

Given proton therapy is an effective treatment for cancer and it delivers less radiation to the patient’s healthy tissue, one might wonder why this therapy is not available in every city across the nation.  Although proton therapy has experienced a relatively slow start, times have changed.  During the early days of proton therapy, the proton equipment used to treat patients was developed by the physics department in a small number of academic institutions.  When a more commercial version of the equipment was introduced in 2000, we started to see interest in proton therapy increase.  Although interest continued to grow, the awareness proton therapy was still non-existent and still only available in two to three locations around the world.  The capital costs of these centers were a major hurdle in building a proton center.  Just a few years ago, proton centers could cost $150 million and take three to five years to construct.  Today that cost has dropped significantly with the advent of one and two room treatment centers and more advanced technology.

ProNova, a Knoxville, Tenn. based affiliate of Provision Healthcare, is designing a two-room proton therapy system that will cost one-third of the current centers, and the equipment will be one-fourth the weight.  This system, will not only cost less to purchase, it will also cut the cost of operation and take much less time to install.  These advancements will help to make proton therapy more affordable for more hospitals around the world.  Recently, treatment costs have also been decreased with the use of hypo-fractionation.  This technique allows the physician to treat the patient with fewer treatments with a higher dose of protons during each session.  This has resulted in some proton treatments to be lower than the cost of conventional radiation.  With the cost of the equipment coming down and the treatment costs being significantly decreased, the future of proton therapy is very bright.

Today we have 14 operational proton treatment centers in the U.S. with 10 currently under construction, including two centers for the Mayo Clinic and one center being built for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.  With an additional 21 centers under development, proton therapy is growing at a significant rate.  Protons may have started slow, but they are quickly becoming the gold standard for the treatment of cancer.

Editor’s Note: As of May 12, 2023, there were 42 operational proton treatment centers in the U.S.