St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opens first proton therapy center for children

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital officials and guests today marked the opening of the St. Jude Red Frog Events Proton Therapy Center, the first proton therapy center in the world dedicated solely to children with cancer.

Patients are now being treated at the center using precisely delivered, high-energy particles called protons to kill or shrink tumors while minimizing damage to healthy tissue and organs. For patients with brain tumors and certain other cancers, research suggests proton beam therapy may be more effective than conventional radiation at preventing the growth and spread of tumors while reducing the risk of treatment-related side effects.

“St. Jude researchers first used radiation therapy to turn the tide against pediatric cancer decades ago and have continued to help define its optimal use in treatment,” said James R. Downing, M.D., St. Jude president and chief executive officer. “The opening of the St. Jude Red Frog Events Proton Therapy Center marks the next chapter of radiation therapy at St. Jude — one that I believe will be another milestone moment in our fight against pediatric cancer.”

The $90-million center includes the linear accelerator, a synchrotron, a three-story rotating gantry, powerful magnets and other equipment necessary to generate and deliver high-energy protons to tumors using small, carefully calibrated beams. The beams, which may include protons traveling at almost two-thirds the speed of light, are measured in millimeters. The system features advanced imaging technology, including cone-beam CT to provide a 3-D image of the patient’s anatomy to achieve precise positioning for treatment. The depth and intensity of the proton beam is guided by advanced control systems to conform to the shape of the tumor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared the features unique to the St. Jude proton therapy system November 2, 2015.

The center also contains three proton therapy treatment rooms, treatment preparation and recovery rooms for patients plus a musical staircase that leads to a rain forest-inspired waiting room. The center’s multidisciplinary staff includes specialists from oncology, radiation therapy, imaging, nursing, child life and other disciplines.

“Since we heard about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s plans for the proton therapy center and the remarkable patient outcomes it could provide, we knew we wanted to make an impact in a big way,” says Ryan Kunkel, co-CEO of Red Frog Events. “This revolutionary center will change the lives of so many families and young patients, and we couldn’t be more proud to stand here today and be part of this.”

The center is located in the Kay Research and Care Center, which opened earlier this year and also houses a state-of-the-art surgery and intensive care unit, the Marlo Thomas Center for Global Education and Collaboration, and other facilities. The center is named in honor of Red Frog Events. In 2013 the company’s co-CEOs, Kunkel and Joe Reynolds, pledged to raise $25 million to bring proton beam therapy to the hospital’s campus.

“The generosity of our friends at Red Frog is truly inspiring and life changing,” said Richard C. Shadyac Jr., president and chief executive officer of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude. “Every family that benefits from cutting-edge treatment in this one-of-a-kind center will know that it is due to the compassion and dedication of the Red Frog Events family and all their incredible supporters.  All of us at St Jude are profoundly grateful.”

Since 2009, St. Jude patients have traveled to Florida to received proton therapy at the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville, Fla., as part of a clinical research collaboration.

St. Jude officials plan to gradually increase the number of children treated at the newly opened center. Along with brain tumors, proton therapy is used to treat Hodgkin lymphoma and such solid tumors as Ewing sarcoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, neuroblastoma and retinoblastoma. By 2018, officials anticipate 80 percent of children receiving radiation therapy at St. Jude will receive proton beam therapy. The remaining patients will receive photon radiation therapy, which uses X-rays rather than protons for cancer treatment.

St. Jude and other researchers have made significant progress in delivering photon radiation in a more targeted manner, but X-rays travel through the body, affecting healthy tissue in the path. In contrast, the high-energy particles used in proton therapy stop at the tumor. The center’s proton beam technology features spot or pencil beam scanning that doctors can use to “paint” the radiation dose on tumors, spot by spot and layer by layer.

“Proton therapy is the next logical step for St. Jude, which is a leader in radiation oncology technology and has helped to maximize the impact of photon radiation therapy,” said Thomas Merchant, D.O., Ph.D., chair of the St. Jude Department of Radiation Oncology. “Proton therapy is an evolution in delivery of focused radiation therapy that allows us to deliver the highest possible dose to tumors while limiting damage to surrounding tissue.” Larry Kun, M.D, St. Jude clinical director and executive vice president, added: “The center will speed the further integration of proton beam therapy into our clinical research program.”

In designing the center, Merchant and other St. Jude researchers worked closely with Hitachi Ltd., the company that produced the hospital’s proton beam system. The system includes a compact design with a footprint that is about 40 percent smaller than conventional proton beam therapy systems.