St. Jude Opens First Proton Therapy Center for Children

Get Permission

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has opened 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 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.

Unique Features

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 computed tomography (CT) to provide a three-dimensional image of the patient’s anatomy to achieve precise positioning for treatment. The depth and intensity of the proton beam are 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 on ­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.

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, Ryan Kunkel and Joe Reynolds, pledged to raise $25 million to bring proton-beam therapy to the hospital’s campus. 

Future Plans

Since 2009, St. Jude patients have traveled to Florida to receive proton therapy at the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville 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 solid tumors such as Ewing sarcoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, neuroblastoma, and retinoblastoma. By 2018, officials anticipate 80% 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. ■