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When doctors began using proton therapy in 1990 for the routine treatment of cancer patients at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Southern California, treatment strategies focused primarily on adults. Since then, new proton treatment programs have emerged that focus successfully on pediatric oncology as well. So much so that Loma Linda University is now the pre-eminent institution for treating children's cancer with proton therapy.
"Treating children who have tumors is often risky, but we've seen some good success with our pediatric proton program," said Dr. Jerry Slater, Clinical Director of Loma Linda's Proton Treatment Center. "Generally, when compared to adults, cancerous tumors in children are rare. But we've seen some challenging cases. Which is why we began putting a priority on children's oncology and hiring the best physicians we could find in the field."
One such specialist is proton therapy oncologist Dr. Eugene Hug, who joined Loma Linda University last year after spending 8 years at Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital -- the only other hospital in the nation with the capability of providing proton therapy. But that facility won't be clinically operational until the end of this year. Dr. Hug specializes in treating children with protons, and has focused on treating complex cases involving brain and spinal tumors.
In the past year, Loma Linda University has treated approximately 40 children with proton therapy, the youngest being only 2 years of age. At least half of the children are brought to Loma Linda University from outside of California, and often from outside the country. So far, problems such as side effects have been minimal, which is one of the major advantages of treating youngsters with proton therapy. Because of the accuracy of the proton beam, physicians can also provide higher doses to the tumor site with superior control. An average proton treatment process for pediatric brain tumors is 6-8 weeks of therapy.
Proton therapy is often called "bloodless surgery" because it is noninvasive. It allows physicians to attack tumors with considerably less damage to surrounding tissue than the standard conventional radiation treatment. It is painless and allows patients to continue their normal activities. The Proton Center at LLUMC uses high-energy proton particles, a significant advancement over conventional radiation, to deliver a beam of energy with surgical precision to a specified spot in the body. Side effects typically associated with radiation therapy are significantly reduced, often virtually eliminated. Cure rates are enhanced because protons provide greater accuracy and increased dosage over standard radiation treatment.
LLUMC's Proton Center treats more than 100 patients daily. With children, the benefits from proton therapy are important because radiation exposure to the brain in young children is associated with the development of intellectual damage. "When we treat children, we have to worry about treating too much of the developing brain," notes Dr. Slater. "The child's brain is more sensitive to radiation. But its still the best option, which is why so many parents ask about proton therapy if there's a tumor that needs to be treated. It certainly helps the parents to make a difficult decision and a tough situation a little easier to handle."
If too much brain tissue is damaged -- which is a possibility when undergoing conventional radiation therapy -- personality development and intelligence can suffer, especially in children under 5. Open surgery, another treatment option for children who have brain cancer, can constitute a substantial risk for a child, too. In those cases, proton treatment may be an excellent alternative.
Proton therapy is being used in more than 20 cancer sites, and it is used to cure other diseases as well. More information on proton therapy for cancer treatment is available by calling 1-800-PROTONS (1-800-776-8667). Additional information can also be obtained from the LLUMC web site .
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