KARLA LEYJA/THE HOYA MedStar Georgetown University Hospital recently installed a proton accelerator, the first of its kind in D.C.
MedStar Georgetown University Hospital recently installed a proton accelerator, the first of its kind in D.C.

MedStar Georgetown University Hospital began installation of Washington, D.C.’s first superconducting synchrocyclotron proton accelerator, which is used in cancer treatment therapy, in February.

The accelerator, which will be effective for use early next year, makes MedStar Georgetown one of only 13 facilities nationwide to offer proton-beam therapy. The therapy targets and destroys cancer cells while avoiding healthy cells in order to increase the cancer-cure rate, reduce treatment side effects and diminish chances of secondary cancer.

“As the only National Cancer Institute/Comprehensive Cancer Center in the Washington area, we will be able to continue our practice of offering the most advanced treatments whether it be chemotherapy, surgery or proton therapy,” Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center Director Louis Weiner, who also chairs the Department of Oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center, wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Our clinical trials hold the promise of becoming the next major advancement in cancer treatment.”

The accelerator, which weighs 15 tons, was lowered through the roof into the hospital as a part of the $32 million project. The equipment was installed in a 2,675-square-foot, three-level, cast-in-place concrete vault, which will create a nearly 9,000-square-foot proton therapy clinical office suite.

The installation comes almost three years after the hospital announced that it received Certificate of Need approval from the D.C. State Health Planning and Development Agency in 2013.

“The process that MedStar Georgetown University Hospital went through for approval is quite rigorous and involves obtaining a Certificate of Need from the District of Columbia. This is a multi step process that requires demonstration that an expensive new treatment facility serves the public good,” Weiner wrote.

MedStar Georgetown radiation oncologist and department of radiation medicine assistant professor Brian Collins said the therapy will be especially beneficial for younger patients.

“The technology decreases the amount of radiation required to eradicate tumors resulting in reduced acute and chronic toxicity,” Collins wrote in an email to The Hoya. “This is important especially in pediatric cancer patients who face a greater risk of developing a secondary cancer due to their total radiation exposure. We know proton therapy carries a decreased risk of a second malignancy when compared with conventional radiation.”

Weiner added that the proton accelerator will allow for a broader scale of treatment and increased convenience for cancer patients.

“To have this therapy available on our campus is a significant benefit, especially for our patients who can have access to the full continuum of care at the same location where they see their oncologist,” Weiner wrote. “Accessing this cutting-edge treatment close to home will be particularly life-changing for our pediatric patients and their families.”

In addition, developments in proton beam treatment could help physicians target and remove a larger swath of tumors.

“Proton therapy is rapidly advancing so we’ll be on the cutting edge. The newest technologies allow for even greater accuracy for delivering proton beams,” Weiner wrote. “For example, when treating a lung tumor, the proton beam must be incredibly accurate so that healthy lung tissue isn’t damaged. But lungs move when people breathe. New technology now allows us to continually track the tumor during treatment while the patient breathes normally. That’s really quite revolutionary.”

Collins said that the benefits of proton therapy far outweigh those of older or more conventional cancer treatments.

“Proton therapy is only focused on the tumor. Therefore, the systemic side-effects are typically minimal leaving the patient feeling well and able to function normally,” Collins wrote. “Most systemic cancer therapies leave patients feeling sick and unproductive for some time following treatment.”

Weiner also emphasized the equipment’s potential research benefits in allowing for clinical studies and collaboration opportunities.

“Until recently in the U.S., there haven’t been enough proton therapy centers and thus not enough patients to conduct the kind of rigorous clinical trials necessary to determine how to best utilize this extremely advanced technology,” Weiner wrote.

Former MedStar Georgetown President Richard Goldberg highlighted the hospital’s accomplishments, which distinguish it from other hospitals in the area, in a press release initially announcing the approval in 2013.

“Lombardi is the only center in the Washington Metropolitan area to earn the National Cancer Institute designation as a comprehensive cancer center which demonstrates MedStar Georgetown’s strength, expertise and multidisciplinary approach to cancer care to both adults and children,” Goldberg said. “Adding this technology to our already rich array of cancer treatments allows us to offer the greatest range of treatment options to patients.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that Goldberg is the current president of MedStar Georgetown. He is the former president. 

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