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A Trio of Proton Therapy Centers is Planned for Tampa Bay and SW Florida

By Steve Smith

New proton therapy centers would fill a major healthcare gap in Florida while creating new revenue streams for several of the region’s healthcare players.

Proton therapy is a highly effective but costly way to treat cancer. As reported recently by Business Observer Tampa Bay Editor Brian Hartz, Tampa Bay is the only major metropolitan area in Florida without a proton therapy center. That’s about to change in a big way, thanks to no less than three different ventures with plans to build proton centers in the region.

Proton therapy is particularly useful as an alternative cancer treatment when a cancerous tumor is close to a vital structure like the heart, brain stem or spinal cord. It allows beams of high-energy protons to target the tumor while ignoring healthy tissue. Cancer patients requiring proton therapy are already being treated by oncologists in community and institutional settings in Tampa Bay and Southwest Florida, but those patients have to travel outside the region for the treatments. This represents a deficiency in Florida’s healthcare system, complicating cancer care for patients who otherwise can receive care in a community setting, seeing an oncologist close to home.

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The groups planning Proton Therapy Centers to be located in Tampa and Southwest Florida represent a Who’s Who of healthcare delivery:

The first group is a consortium of four cancer treatment entities – Florida Cancer Specialists and Research Institute (FCS), Florida Urology Partners, Proton Therapy Partners and Tampa General Hospital – with a proton center in the planning stages. Their center will break ground sometime in the first quarter of 2022, most likely on Tampa General’s medical campus, with a construction timeline of 18 to 24 months. There is little doubt this group has the collective horsepower to make it happen. According to FCS President and CEO Nathan Walcker, the center will operate under the auspices of the Cancer Institute at Tampa General Hospital, with management services provided by Proton Therapy Partners.

According to its website, Proton Therapy Partners provides capital and arranges financing, oversees design, build and construction, and manages operations of joint ventures with prominent health systems.

Second, Fort Myers-based Advocate Radiation Oncology, headed up by Dr. Arie Dosoretz, is developing its own proton therapy facility, which they plan to open as soon as 2023.

Third, but certainly not last in name recognition, is Moffitt. Thanks to a $15 million gift from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa will begin work on its proton therapy center this year, and it will be part of their Richard M. Schulze Family Outpatient Center. The “Schulze” here is Best Buy founder Dick Schulze.

A growing need

Shooting for an opening date sometime in 2023, Dr. Arie Dosoretz, who co-founded Advocate Radiation Oncology in 2019, says that his proton therapy machine is being built as we speak, in Belgium. He says he’s confident that his will be the first such center to open on Florida’s west coast. Speaking with the Business Observer, he said specifics would be announced very soon.

The cost to build a proton therapy center can exceed $55 million. To finance the venture he’s taking a different approach, raising money from a mix of private and institutional investors. Anticipating high demand because of the high rate of cancer diagnoses in the region, Dosoretz says his facility will have two 5,000-square-foot “bunkers” to house proton therapy machines, which can weigh between 50 and 200 tons.

Cancer patients in the Tampa Bay region requiring proton therapy, including pediatric cancer patients at St. Petersburg’s Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, have to travel to specialized facilities across the state, or out of state, multiple times over the course of their treatment. Since a course of proton therapy may require 30 to 40 doses, sometimes daily, proximity to a treatment center can literally be a lifesaver.

According to the National Association for Proton Therapy, there are 39 proton therapy treatment centers in the United States. Six of them are in Florida – in Orlando, Jacksonville and the Miami area.

According to Dr. Richard Tuli, chief of radiation oncology in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine at USF and Tampa General Hospital, the treatment’s local unavailability could be attributed to the high cost of building the centers, but also to the absence of a cohesive team approach to proton therapy, and that operating the proton therapy machines requires specialized training.

A strong business case

According to the Florida Department of Health, Florida has the second highest cancer burden in the nation and, since 2014, cancer has been Florida’s second leading cause of death, after heart disease.  An average of 115,000 new cancers are diagnosed and reported each year to the statewide cancer registry, the Florida Cancer Data System. 

The complete lack of a proton therapy center on all of Florida’s west coast, the stubbornly high incidence of cancer in the region and a booming population make the business case for these high-tech treatment centers such a strong one.

Walcker of FCS, and Dosoretz of Advocate Radiation Oncology agree on another aspect of the arrival of proton therapy centers in the region – the ancillary benefits, such as a boost in local job growth and research activities.

Read more: Business Observer article by Brian Hartz

Read more: About proton therapy from Johns Hopkins Medicine

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