Emory Proton Therapy Center opens, bringing a new-age tool to the battle with cancer

“It’s really the start of a new era in cancer treatment here in the state of Georgia.”

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Emory Proton Therapy Center
Emory Proton Therapy Center’s Ponce de Leon entrance

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

When the Emory Proton Therapy Center opened its doors on Thursday, it was already a symbol of triumph over challenges. Its construction consumed five years, $230 million, and 36,000 cubic yards of concrete—as much concrete as it took to build the Bank of America Plaza across the street, which is the tallest skyscraper in Georgia. The project fell a couple of years behind schedule when the original owner failed to obtain enough financing. But eventually the nonprofit Provident Resources Group saw the project to completion—with the help of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority.

Emory Proton Therapy Center
Beam line

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

As the center’s superconducting cyclotron, encased in 14-foot-thick walls, energized protons for precise, cancer-killing radiation, about 40 patients were already awaiting treatment. Proton therapy treats tumors with a concentrated dose of radiation that produces little or no damage to surrounding tissue. That precision is especially beneficial for treating tumors of the lungs, back and spine, and head and neck. For children with cancer, proton therapy avoids damaging their developing tissue and organs, a serious concern with conventional radiation.

“It’s really the start of a new era in cancer treatment here in the state of Georgia.”

The Emory Proton Therapy Center is the first and only facility of its kind in the state. “It’s really the start of a new era in cancer treatment here in the state of Georgia,” says Mark McDonald, a radiation oncologist and the center’s medical director.

There are 29 other such centers in the United States and another 23 under construction or in planning stages. With five treatment rooms, Emory’s center is among the largest.

Emory Proton Therapy Center
Treatment room

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

Basked in a backlit blue glow, the cancer treatment room looks like the set of a sci-fi thriller. The “gantry,” a 240-ton device that emits a powerful proton beam, glides along a circular track around a sleek black treatment table. Everything is controlled remotely from computers in an adjacent room.

Emory Proton Therapy Center
The gantry

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

Down a hallway, behind an always-closed set of doors, protons spin in the cyclotron until they reach a speed two-thirds as fast as light. (Protons are the positive particles in the nucleus of an atom. X-rays are photons, electromagnetic rays with a shorter wavelength than visible light.) The protons travel 100 yards through a vacuum tube, guided by magnets in “pencil-beam scanning,” a pinpoint method of delivering radiation.

The opening of the proton therapy center on Peachtree Street marks yet another clinical milestone for Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute, which was designated as a comprehensive cancer care center by the National Cancer Institute in 2017. Supporters of the center gathered in a heated tent outside the center to hear Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms laud its life-saving possibilities and Atlanta Braves vice chairman emeritus John Schuerholz, a prostate cancer survivor, offer his congratulations.

The delay in opening turned out to be advantageous as the Emory Proton Therapy Center was able to incorporate updated hardware and software and learn from experiences at other centers, says Walter J. Curran, Jr., executive director of Winship.

Emory Proton Therapy Center
From left: John Schuerholz, Vice Chairman Emeritus, Atlanta Braves; Walter J. Curran, Jr., MD, Executive Director, Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; Steve E. Hicks, Chairman & CEO, Provident Resources Group; Claire E. Sterk, President, Emory University; Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of the City of Atlanta; Jonathan S. Lewin, MD, President & CEO, Emory Healthcare.

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

The first patient, who has a “complicated cancer,” began treatment a couple of days before the opening. “Everything went beautifully with the treatment,” Curran says. Patients typically have treatment sessions five days a week for four to six weeks.

The center is owned by Georgia ProtonCare Center, a non-profit subsidiary of Provident Resources Group in Baton Rouge. Emory provides the clinical care.

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