McLaren Healthcare Corp.’s decade-long quest to offer its patients cutting-edge proton beam therapy for cancer has finally arrived as its Proton Therapy Center since December has treated 38 patients who have trekked to the center in Flint for more than 1,400 visits.
After completing construction of its proton center in 2015, McLaren ran into a variety of delays, including the bankruptcy of its partner, Texas-based ProTom International Inc., that helped push the three-room center’s total costs up 25 percent to more than $65 million.
Proton beam therapy, which delivers a narrow beam of radiation to destroy cancerous cells, is an emerging radiation treatment that is steadily gaining acceptance among physicians, patients and health insurers.
Research is showing that proton beam radiation is effective in some prostate and pediatric cancers because it causes less damage to surrounding tissues while directing high doses of radiation at tumors.
One of its chief advantages over X-rays, or photon beams, which pass through a patient, is that proton beams deliver targeted radiation to the tumor and then stop without passing through other tissue.
In 2008, McLaren was one of the first health systems in Michigan to indicate an interest in building a proton beam therapy center. In 2010, McLaren purchased the Russian-made Radiance 330 synchrotron particle accelerator machine that creates the protons.
The high-energy protons are then directed with powerful magnets along a long metal tube to create a “pencil beam” scan that increases the accuracy and effectiveness of the beam delivered to the patient.
Nationally, some 28 centers are operational in the U.S., including a single-room proton center at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak that uses a cyclotron particle accelerator. There are about four under development at costs that range from $30 million to more than $100 million, according to the National Association for Proton Therapy.
After completing final testing and calibrations of the massive synchrotron, Chad Grant, president of 458-bed McLaren Regional Medical Center in Flint, said proton center doctors, physicists and engineers decided last fall to quietly open the facility in mid-December.
Without public notice, McLaren proton center oncologists began evaluating potential patients to treat using a short list of cancer types, including prostate, kidney, head and neck, pancreatic, basal skull and chondrosarcoma.
“We wanted to make sure everything was ready” and that there would be no false starts, Grant said. “We had three patients the first day, but really we started off intentionally slow, and it has been ramping up (to full schedule for one room) since July.”
David Wood, an assistant post commander with the Michigan State Police in Marshall, was the first patient treated at the proton center on Dec. 17.
After nine weeks and 45, 30-minute rounds of proton radiation therapy for advanced prostate cancer, Wood said he feels great some seven months after finishing treatment.
“I am amazed how easy it has been. I will be ‘in remission’ the rest of my life. I will never get an all-clear because it is a hormonal-driven cancer,” said Wood, a state trooper for more than 30 years who plans to retire in April. “Physically, I am feeling good. Fatigue is the only issue because of the medicine. It was pretty advanced. … It was not metastatic and into bones and lymph nodes. God took care of it with the treatment.”
Like Wood, all 37 other patients McLaren has been treating so far have not missed a day of therapy and the data shows the proton beam scanning has hit its mark 100 percent of the time, said Hesham Gayar, medical director of the McLaren Proton Therapy Center.
“We are 100 percent accurate. We measured it and validated it. I am very proud of that,” said Gayar, a radiation oncologist at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint who treated Wood.
By the end of the first year, Grant projects about 100 patients will have been treated, primarily because only one room is operational and the intention was to go slowly the first six months. Once the second treatment room is opened in late spring 2020, 150 to 200 patients will be treated and by the third year, 250 to 300 patients.
“We are really anticipating this taking off once we communicate to physicians (and the public) that we’re actually doing this,” Grant said.
On an average day this year, Grant said, the center sees about 20 patients per day with an average treatment time of 30 minutes. Once all three rooms are operational, including the pediatric room possibly later in 2021, the center is expected to cycle through 60 to 70 patients per day.
McLaren is projecting revenue for 2019 of $3 million, doubling in 2020 to $6 million and hitting the $10 million mark in 2021.
Since July, McLaren’s proton center has been treating a wide variety of cancers, Gayar said. They include solid tumors of the head, neck and skull base, breast, lung, bladder, brain, central nervous system, liver, pancreas, prostate, spine and chest wall, and some pediatric, gynecological and gastrointestinal cancers.
While the majority of patients so far have come from Michigan through the McLaren’s Karmanos Cancer Institute network, Gayar said, about 40 percent heard about it by word of mouth and called for information.
“(For) about 20 percent of those patients, proton was the only option,” said Gayar. “When we have a candidate, we discuss and agree that the type of tumor and location” will make the therapy a good choice.
Beaumont and McLaren’s radiation oncology department, like other health systems, also offers a variety of other photon-based radiation treatments that include adaptive radiation therapy, image-guided radiation therapy, high-dose rate brachytherapy and intraoperative radiation therapy — all intended to destroy cancer.
But Gayar said he believes the long-term costs are lower with proton beam therapy because of fewer treatments and lower radiation dosage. He also believes cure rates are better for some cancers, including adult brain and spinal tumors and pediatric cancers. Many comparative studies are underway to prove effectiveness, he said.