Health Care

Baptist Health unveils 220-ton cyclotron for cancer proton therapy

A 220-ton machine, capable of accelerating highly charged proton particles for use in radiation oncology therapy, arrived in South Florida on Tuesday carrying with it the promise of more precise treatment for cancer tumors.

After traveling 4,700 miles from Belgium, where it was manufactured, the mammoth machine — known as a cyclotron particle accelerator — was trucked to Baptist Hospital Miami on Kendall Drive where it will form the heart of the future Miami Cancer Institute.

From the cyclotron, nicknamed ‘Pete’ for marketing purposes, protons energized with up to 250 million electron volts — enough to place them at any depth in the human body — will be delivered via particle beams aimed at patients’ cancer tumors.

“The impact of what we’re doing here at Miami Cancer Institute will be felt throughout South Florida ... the Caribbean and South America,” Wayne Brackin, chief operating officer of Baptist Health South Florida, told a group of physicians, donors, patient advocates and others gathered for an unveiling ceremony.

With the only proton therapy center south of Jacksonville and north of Antarctica, the Institute is expected to draw cancer patients from South Florida and beyond.

The center will house Baptist Health oncologists, researchers and three patient treatment rooms. The $400 million facility is scheduled to open in January, but proton therapy will not begin until later in the year, Brackin said.

Because protons destroy cancer cells while avoiding healthy tissue and minimizing side effects, said Minesh Mehta, deputy director and chief of radiation oncology at the Institute, there is evidence that proton therapy is the more effective alternative in several clinical situations, such as ocular melanoma.

Mehta, formerly medical director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s proton treatment center in Baltimore, said data analysis suggests that the incidence of second cancers in children treated with proton beams is significantly lower than for children treated with X-ray radiation.

“Children represent the group that is most likely to benefit from proton therapy,” he said.

In other types of tumors, such as cancer of the esophagus and head and neck cancer, Mehta said, several side effects are noted to occur at a lower frequency in patients treated with proton therapy.

Raymond Rodriguez-Torres, whose 10-year-old daughter, Bella, died in 2013 after a six-year struggle with a rare cancer, attended the cyclotron unveiling ceremony on Tuesday. The Live Like Bella Foundation for Childhood Cancer, which Rodriguez-Torres chairs, donated $1 million to the Institute for the creation of a pediatric proton radiation program.

He credited proton therapy with extending his daughter’s life, and said he wanted South Florida families of children with cancer to have a resource closer to home. Rodriguez-Torres said his family had to travel to Jacksonville to find proton therapy for Bella.

“We had to leave home and be alone during a very difficult time,” he said.