UT Health San Antonio has partnered with Georgia-based health care company Proton International LLC to bring proton therapy to South Texas.

The UT Health San Antonio Proton Therapy and Research Center is expected to open in 2023 and will give cancer patients in San Antonio and across South Texas access to an advanced form of treatment that offers an alternative to X-ray radiation therapy. 

Proton therapy works by aiming beams of high-energy protons directly at tumors to destroy them. The use of the positively charged particles significantly reduces side effects typically associated with X-ray radiation, which often kills healthy surrounding tissue resulting in vomiting, hair loss, and fatigue. 

In treating cancers of the brain, spine, eye, liver, prostate, and breast, proton therapy has been especially effective, reducing the amount of radiation to surrounding tissues by an estimated 60%. Proton therapy is often used in treating children because they are particularly susceptible to the side effects of radiation therapy.

The relatively new treatment was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1988 and is available at only 37 proton centers in the U.S., just two of which are in Texas. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 600,000 patients will have received proton therapy treatment by 2030.

Dr. Mark Bonnen, chief medical officer of Mays Cancer Center and chairman of UT Health San Antonio’s department of radiation oncology, said he’s excited about the new proton center because, as the first in South Texas, it will make the treatment more accessible to Texans.

“This cutting-edge technology is part of our effort to forge a future in which no patient will have to leave San Antonio to receive world-class innovative treatments,” said Dr. Ruben Mesa, executive director of the Mays Cancer Center in a press release. 

“Imagine, if you’re in that category of patients that would benefit from proton therapy, and your only option is to go to Houston or Dallas,” Bonnen told the San Antonio Report. With many of these patients needing multiple treatments a week for six to eight weeks, they end up having to quit their jobs so they can make these long drives for treatment or relocating entirely, he said. “Having this treatment locally is a game-changer for those who can’t travel.”

A rendering of the planned UT Health San Antonio Proton Therapy Center Outpatient Facility Credit: Courtesy / Stantec – Proton International

Proton International will use private funds to build the new three-story, 26,000-square-foot center on a plot of land leased from the San Antonio Medical Foundation. Proton International Chief Executive Officer Chris Chandler said the company is eager to bring this technology to San Antonio and South Texas. 

“Our mission is to create more access for people to proton therapy, so we would rather go to markets where there isn’t a proton center so we can help people gain access to it,” Chandler told the San Antonio Report. 

Proton international has built 10 other proton centers across the nation and has six more in the works, Chandler said.

The new center, which will be adjacent to UT Health San Antonio’s Greehey Campus, plans to hire about 30 full-time employees ranging from doctors to physicists, Bonnen said. 

It is projected to generate roughly $4.3 million in city and county tax revenues over 10 years and will serve approximately 500 patients each year.

The proton therapy center will include exam rooms, clinical space, a treatment room, and a control room from which the center’s 15-ton cyclotron will be operated. The cyclotron is the key to proton therapy; the colossal machine produces the proton beam and delivers it to an exact location in the patient’s body, destroying the cancerous cells. 

The partners anticipate breaking ground on the cancer treatment center this fall. 

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...