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UAB's newest cancer-killing cyclotron installed

  • March 05, 2019
UAB’s new $25 million, 90-ton cyclotron has been installed in the UAB Proton Therapy Center.

Emma, the 90-ton cyclotron which is the centerpiece of the new proton therapy initiative at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was installed today in the UAB Proton Therapy Center, a Proton International facility under construction on 20th Street and 4th Ave. South.

A cyclotron is a key piece of technology for proton therapy, which uses an aimed beam of protons directed at a tumor site to treat many types of cancer.  It is one of the newest forms of radiation therapy, available at only 29 locations in the United States. 

Proton International at UAB owns the center, which will be operated by UAB physicians and staff from the Department of Radiation Oncology. Construction began on Jan. 30, 2018 and the center is expected to begin treating cancer patients in early 2020. 

The cyclotron produces a proton beam that is configured to deliver the majority of its energy precisely at the tumor location. Healthy tissue in front of the tumor receives a minimal amount of energy, and tissue behind the tumor receives very little. This reduces the damage to healthy tissue that is common in the use of conventional X-ray radiation and is the cause of most side effects. 

“The UAB Proton Therapy Center is the first in Alabama and one of the few in the Southeast,” said James A. Bonner, M.D., the Merle M. Salter Endowed Professor, and chair of the UAB Department of Radiation Oncology in the School of Medicine. “This is an extremely advanced form of radiation technology, and we look forward to offering this cutting-edge approach to our patients and families in Birmingham, across Alabama and beyond.” 

Emma was transported across the Atlantic Ocean by the MV Tugela, a vehicles carrier, and off-loaded at the Georgia Ports Authority facility in Brunswick, Georgia. A specialized truck, with 20 axles, 78 wheels and drivers in front and back, brought her to UAB. A heavy-lift crane was assembled on 4th Ave South to lift and deposit Emma into the facility via the roof.

Emma will require multiple rounds of testing and calibration before the facility is ready to treat patients. 

“Proton therapy is already having a tremendous impact on the health of people around the world,” said Chris Chandler, CEO of Proton International. “Experts conservatively estimate that about 250,000 cancer patients in the United States alone could benefit from proton therapy. We are excited to partner with UAB and put this outstanding tool into the hands of the best cancer fighters in Alabama.”

Proton therapy is appropriate for many solid cancer tumors, including tumors of the brain and central nervous system, eye, gastrointestinal tract, head and neck, liver, lung, prostate, spine, and some breast tumors. It can be very efficacious for single-site tumors. In some cases, proton therapy may be useful in treating cancer that has metastasized, or spread into surrounding tissue, due to its focused dose advantages. 

It is also useful for treating cancer in children, as it minimizes damage from radiation to surrounding tissue, which is especially problematic for children.

The UAB Proton Center consists of a three-story building housing the proton therapy system, manufactured by Varian Medical Systems, a longtime partner with UAB in the delivery of radiation therapy. UAB is leasing the property to Proton International which will own the facility. Planning and pre-treatment will continue to be done at UAB’s Hazelrig-Salter Radiation Oncology Center. The medical staff, including radiation oncologists, other cancer physicians, medical physicists, dosimetrists, radiation therapy technologists and nurses, will be exclusively from UAB.