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Scientists Argue Whether Proton Therapies Used to Treat Cancer are Worth the Costs

Jun 02, 2013 11:53 AM EDT

For many, proton beam therapy symbolizes the future of high-tech, low-impact medicine and, as a result, has hospitals and medical centers across the nation taking part in a sort of arms race to procure the equipment needed for treatment.

Emory University is one of those, announcing in early May that the school had decided to go forward with the construction of 107,000 square-foot center school officials hope will offer the “most advanced radiation therapy possible” to as many as 2,200 cancer patients by 2016.

The price tag for the building, according to a press release issued by the university, is $200 million or more.

ProCure Proton Therapy Center in New Jersey is another institution working to combat cancer using proton therapy, meanwhile providing its patients with a waiting room characterized by a blazing fireplace and towering ceilings.

And nor is the trend one necessarily one tended to by the private sector only: John Hopkins Medicine and Medstar Health have both petitioned the government for aid in the construction of facilities of their own.

However, the facilities, which require massive proton structures, are more expensive than traditional treatment centers with therapy itself amounting to $50,000 per patient - double that of conventional methods, according to NPR.

And while those touting the method have marketed it as more effective and better able to minimize harm to healthy tissue, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that patients with prostate cancer who received proton beam therapy fared no better than their counterparts.

“So why is the venerable Mayo Clinic building two proton beam facilities? Because it’s competing against Massachusetts General Hospital, M.D. Anderson in Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, Loma Linda in California — all of which have one,” former White House advisor Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist and vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in 2012.

However, there are those arguing against the studies that have shown negative results. Among them is University of Maryland radiation oncologist Minesh Mehta who told Utah Public Radio that the studies exhibiting negative results are based on flawed data and don't reflect the true power behind the therapy.

"At the end of the day, when I face a patient and I tell a patient I can treat you with technology that will treat less of your normal tissue with radiation you don't need versus more radiation to the tissue that should not be radiated, which would you like to choose?" Mehta said. "The vast majority of patients will choose the technology that gives less radiation to their tissues."

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