National Proton Conference highlights emerging ideas in proton therapy

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The National Association for Proton Therapy (NAPT) recently hosted the 2022 National Proton Conference – a gathering of physicians, administrators, physicists, and more from proton therapy facilities across the United States. Our very own Dr. James Gray, Radiation Oncologist and Medical Director of Provision CARES Proton Therapy Nashville, attended the conference. He serves on the NAPT Board of Directors and Physicians Advisory Committee, and after taking some time to digest all he learned, Dr. Gray is pleased to report that proton therapy is alive and well!

We sat down with Dr. Gray for some Q&A about the new technologies and emerging ideas the nation’s leading proton experts are talking about.

Jennifer Maggiore and Dr. James Gray attending the 2022 National Proton Conference
NAPT’s Jennifer Maggiore and Dr. Gray at the 2022 National Proton Conference

Q: What is the National Proton Conference?
A: The National Proton Conference is hosted by the National Association for Proton Therapy, which is a collection of institutions and individuals that are interested in developing and promoting the use of proton therapy in the United States. It’s a gathering of people who operate and staff these facilities – a gathering of minds. So, it’s a very effective way of sharing ideas and showing the latest research.

Q: Who attends the conference?
A: It’s a combination of physicians who are involved with proton therapy, but also administrators who operate the facilities, other clinical personnel, physics personnel, dosimetry. It’s a whole broad range of people who are advocates for patients who are going through cancer treatment.

Q: What topics are discussed?
A: The NAPT conference generally involves looking at some of the latest research we’re trying to accomplish to demonstrate the potential superiority that proton therapy represents in the field of radiation oncology. We also have discussions about the business. Like, how do you finance and build a proton center?

We discuss numerous emerging technologies in the field. For example, we looked at FLASH (or extremely high dose rate) therapy. This is an extremely powerful technology and the reason it has a lot of importance in the proton world is because about the only way to do it is with a proton cyclotron accelerator system. So, with some adaptation of equipment, Provision could have the capability of doing it.

We also talk about how we can reduce the development and operational costs for proton facilities to make them more available to the public. So, a broad range of topics, and I find them very beneficial for learning some of the latest ideas and techniques being promoted.

Q: What was your biggest takeaway this year?
A: Certainly, it’s that proton therapy is alive and well! It’s still a fairly small segment of the overall radiation therapy marketplace, but it has the distinction of being one of the most technologically advanced ways of delivering radiation to patients. It still comes at a very high cost, which is an unavoidable truth of using proton therapy, but it clearly has advantages and so there is continued enthusiasm.

If you look at a lot of the large academic stakeholders, they’re increasing their stake across the board. Some of the earliest adopters of proton therapy – MD Anderson, Mayo Clinic, University of Pennsylvania, University of Florida – they’re not only still in, but they’re also expanding their capability. They want to build more access to be able to treat more patients.

Q: How is the NAPT advancing the future of proton therapy?
A:  We just want to see proton therapy develop appropriately. We’re not interested in seeing proton therapy try to take over the world of radiation therapy. However, right now only about 1% of all patients who receive radiation therapy are receiving proton therapy. If you look at how many patients would probably have a clear benefit from receiving proton therapy, that usually comes out to a number quite a bit more than 1% – maybe 10 to 15%.

That means we need more proton centers than we have right now, and we need to be as efficient as we can with the existing facilities. What the NAPT is trying to do is make sure proton therapy is not legislated into a dark corner somewhere. In terms of public policy, the NAPT stands ready to guard. We want to make this available to people, make people aware of it. We want to educate people, promote research, and promote an appropriate development of the public’s access to proton therapy.

Q: Any final thoughts on this year’s National Proton Conference?
A: For me personally, after going through the pandemic and having attended the last two conferences virtually. While there are a lot of advantages to that, it’s just not the same thing. The absence of being onsite in the same physical location with other scientists, administrators, patient advocates – the ability to have a sidebar discussion with somebody while you’re grabbing a coffee, or talk to vendors in person, or sit down at a meal and talk about a variety of subjects – that just doesn’t happen virtually at all. So, to be around each other, be at the same place, it just leads to a better exchange. It’s a much more intimate way of surrounding yourself with the new thoughts and ideas that are going on.

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