By Jeremy M. Lazarus, Special to the NNPA from the Richmond Free Press –
Hampton University (HU) has ushered in a new era of cancer treatment in Virginia with the recent opening of its $225 million Proton Therapy Institute. After three years of construction, the institute has gone into action to deliver on its promise of providing life-saving therapy. This is the first proton therapy center connected with a historically black university and the only one of eight in this country not connected with a medical school.
Institute doctors have begun treating patients, according to Dr. Cynthia E. Keppel, science and technology director for the HU institute. “We’re very excited,” Dr. Keppel said in a telephone interview from her office as the new center began treating patients with prostate, breast, lung and other cancers. HU President William R. Harvey remarkably took the institute from concept to reality in just five years. He rallied local, state, and federal support for a project that he envisioned as creating a “hub for cancer treatment, research, and technology.”
As the institute’s name states, the treatment uses protons, a positively charged subatomic particle, to blast tumors. The equipment allows a stream of protons to be focused with laserlike precision on a malignant tumor anywhere in the body, Dr. Keppell said. While expensive, the treatment has gained favor for being less invasive and less dangerous to the patient than traditional radiation therapy.
This is the first proton therapy center connected with a historically black university and the only one of eight in this country not connected with a medical school. At 98,000 square feet, it ranks as the largest freestanding center among the 23 proton centers in the world. It is located in a Hampton business park off campus. Dr. Harvey was able to jump-start the project with help from former Gov. Tim Kaine. In 2007, Gov. Kaine cut through financing hurdles by allowing the state’s Small Business Financing Authority to issue $220 million in bonds to enable construction to begin. The institute is still feeling its way, Dr. Keppel said.
“We’re beginning slowly. We started with two patients and plan to build up to 12 in the first months,” Dr. Keppel said.
By next summer, she said the center expects to be treating 150 patients at any one time. About 2,000 patients a year are projected at full capacity, she said. The cost of treatment, usually covered by health insurance, is about $50,000 per patient, she said, meaning the institute should generate between $80 million and $100 million a year in revenue.
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