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High expectations for Mayo Clinic's cancer treatment center (video)

This gantry - in the proton therapy treatment room at the MD Anderson Center in Houston, Texas - weighs 138 metric tons and rotates the equivalent of two floors above and below patients.



More than 550

Number of metric tons of gantry equipment Mayo Clinic plans to install to support four pencil-beam treatment rooms in Rochester.

Where do protons come from?

To get the charged particles known as protons, Mayo plans to first use hydrogen, a relatively inexpensive source. But other charged particles, such as carbon, helium and neon, could eventually be used.


Four devices, each the size and weight of a jetliner, will be moving into Mayo Clinic's newest treatment center soon.

Administrators announced late last year that the new $200 million pencil-beam cancer treatment facility would be built on Mayo's campus in downtown Rochester.


Mayo's largest construction project since the Gonda Building needs to be big: Each of four relatively small treatment rooms will require a separate "gantry" — a device large enough to stretch into two normal-sized floors of a building. And each 138 metric-ton gantry will be able to rotate from two floors underneath a patient to two floors above a patient.

The gantrys "are the largest pieces that will need to be craned into the building once the building is near complete," said Karl Corrigan, section head for the Mayo Division of Outpatient Project Services.

Patients who arrive starting in 2014 will see a lobby, waiting area and a treatment room. But the gigantic, complex machinery to make it all work is shielded from patient view.

The building's footprint will be one complete city block, much like the Gonda building, but it will be just 2 1/2 floors above grade compared to Gonda's 20 floors above grade, Corrigan said.

The building also holds promise for the future, as it'll be built with shell space and the ability to expand vertically and horizontally, Corrigan said.

The center is expected to be a draw for visiting physicians, scientists and reporters. Few treatment centers offer proton therapy, and only one in the United States currently offers the type Mayo plans to install: "pencil beam" therapy that can target tumors electronically.

Proton treatment safer

Mayo's computer simulation research showed that proton treatment is much safer than traditional X-ray radiation, said Mayo radiation oncologist Dr. Robert Foote, who worked for several years to move the clinic toward the emerging pencil beam cancer-treatment technology.


Mayo recognized that the University of Florida already offered proton therapy, but there weren't proton-therapy options for patients in Arizona and Minnesota.

Cancer is a significant problem for baby boomers, and the proton-therapy allows treatment with less damage to surrounding tissue, allowing patients to live longer lives with better quality of life, Mayo officials said.

Recurrence rate for lung cancers treated with X-ray radiation is 50 percent to 80 percent, Foote said. At MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, with proton therapy, the recurrence rate is only 15 percent.

Why? Because patients can get a much higher dose of radiation without damage to surrounding tissues.

"It doesn't cure everybody. There's not a 100 percent (result), but the reduction is dramatic in complication and recurrence," Foote said.

Mayo is aggressively working to get the new Richard O. Jacobson proton therapy program up and running, starting by 2014 or early 2015.

Cancer is a constantly changing target, and Mayo says it needs to be prepared to offer high-tech treatments far into the future.

"There's going to be no magic bullet cure for cancer that's going to make this equipment obsolete," Foote said.


Proton therapy can be repeated

Unlike traditional radiation therapy, Foote said, proton therapy can be repeated if cancer comes back.

Foote thinks treatment of tumors near the eye, inside the brain, in the lung and next to the small intestine, kidney, liver or spinal cord would be ideal for proton therapy because it is so focused. 

How about cost?

"I think it's fair to say it's twice as expensive for protons as it is for X-rays," Foote said.

But the reduction of side effects and their treatment can offset that cost. Research in Europe has suggested that cost over time is actually less for proton therapy, Foote said. 

And, he said, "you can't put a price on the human suffering."


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