Two years ago, in September 2010, the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute treated its first patient for prostate cancer. After years of planning and seed money from local, state and federal sources, HUPTI, a $225 million project — the brainchild of Hampton University President William Harvey — emerged as the largest freestanding facility of its kind in the world and only the eighth such treatment center in the United States.

Harvey predicted the institute would treat more than 2,000 cancer patients a year, generate close to $50 million in annual revenue, and contribute millions in taxes and spinoff spending annually to the local economy, while “saving lives and easing human misery.” He particularly emphasized HUPTI’s importance for the treatment of prostate cancer in Virginia’s African-American community, which has one of the highest rates – 233 per 100,000 — in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Now starting its third year as a treatment facility, HUPTI has encountered some roadblocks — from studies questioning whether proton beam therapy is the best treatment for prostate cancer to delays in the delivery of its specialized equipment.

Undeterred, Harvey said, “We haven’t changed the plan — the actuals have changed. … I think our center’s doing pretty well.”

Proton therapy use

Prostate cancer is the most widely diagnosed cancer in U.S. men, affecting more than 240,000 in 2011, according to the American Cancer Society. When HUPTI opened, proton therapy was touted as the best treatment for its highly targeted radiation beam that spares surrounding healthy tissue and minimizes associated side effects, such as rectal bleeding. Now, its supremacy has been disputed by some, including a 2012 University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study, and there are no definitive or conclusive clinical studies to counter it.

Leonard Arzt, executive director of the National Association for Proton Therapy, dismisses the UNC “observational study” as flawed on several counts and is anticipating that a multi-year federally funded Massachusetts study will yield a clearer picture. read more…