Proton beam therapy: Our new hub to beat cancer

27 May 2019
Proton beam therapy: Our new hub to beat cancer

Adelaide has taken landmark strides towards the construction of Australia’s first and only proton therapy unit. The unit will treat about 800 patients a year, destroying cancer cells with radiation and avoiding causing damage to healthy tissues by delivering powerful proton beams precisely where needed. It means patients will no longer need to travel overseas. Site work on the $300 million SAHMRI 2 building is expected to start this year and be completed by 2022.

When Kate Pagnozzi faced the daunting challenge of proton therapy treatment to pulverise an inoperable brain tumour, she had to deal with the “terrifying” ordeal of flying to the US for 10 weeks. The 22-year-old is now back home, optimistically awaiting scans to show the results of the treatment – and is thrilled that Australia’s first planned proton therapy unit in Adelaide has taken several strides forward. “Maybe I’ll work there one day,” the registered nurse, of Windsor Gardens, said. 

The Australian Bragg Centre for Proton Therapy and Research will be in a bunker in the planned $300 million SAHMRI 2 building, next to the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute “cheesegrater” building on North Tce. The unit will treat around 800 patients a year, destroying cancer cells with radiation without damaging healthy tissues by delivering powerful proton beams precisely where needed. Many will be South Australians like Kate who will no longer have to travel overseas for lifesaving treatment, while others will come from interstate and even overseas to the SA Health and Biomedical Precinct. 

In several landmark strides towards the only proton therapy unit in the Southern Hemisphere: 

  • The National Partnership Agreement between the Federal Government and State Government for $68 million to fund the new proton therapy facility has been completed, meaning the first payment of $26.7 million from the Commonwealth can be made
  • This is in addition to $44 million from the State Government which includes the land and relocation of major rail infrastructure on the site 
  • Global construction firm Lendlease has been appointed by Adelaide developer Commercial & General as the builder 
  • Site work for the SAHMRI 2 building is expected to start this year, and finished by 2022

SAHMRI has begun a training plan to prepare the future professionals, including clinicians from UniSA and the University of Adelaide, and is working with other global centres of excellence such as Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Pennsylvania and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in the UK to develop the expertise required. 

SAHMRI Executive Director, Steve Wesselingh, said South Australians could feel proud that SAHMRI had been chosen to develop Australia’s first proton therapy unit. “These milestones are major steps towards a time in the near future when cancer patients, in particular children, will be able to readily access this lifesaving technology in Australia,” he said. 

Health and Wellbeing Minister, Stephen Wade, said the federal-state agreement was the next important step in delivering a world-class health and medical precinct. “The facility will reiterate SA’s position on the health and medical research world stage but, most importantly, it will improve the lives of patients,” he said. 

For Kate, the unit will save others from the ordeal she endured after what she thought was a blocked ear turned out to be a brain tumour. She underwent surgery in October 2016 at the Royal Adelaide Hospital which removed about 95 per cent of the tumour, but a tiny residue too risky to remove was left.

In September, she left with her mother, Natalie, for Jacksonville, Florida, to undergo proton therapy treatment in an effort to destroy the tumour remnant. “I was terrified,” Kate said. “I had never been to America. And I wasn’t going there for a holiday, I was going for treatment, and there was such a lot to take in while I was focused on my health. “It’s completely different from Australia. “I had to worry about all the differences between Australia and America, such as having to drive on the other side of the road and the different currency.’’ During her 10-week stay other family members made a surprise visit, to her delight. She has had just one scan since, as it takes time for the treatment to subside, but is optimistic for the future. “You have to have a positive mindset,” Kate said. “I’m glad other people in the future will be able to get this treatment at home.”

This article was reproduced with permission from The Advertiser.