An increasing number of children who need radiation to treat their cancers are being treated at the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute. Since opening in 2006, the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute has treated over 1,000 pediatric patients, a milestone it reached this month. It is currently the world’s largest pediatric proton therapy program, serving 25-30 children each day.
Proton therapy is a specialized form of radiation treatment that minimizes damage to healthy tissue surrounding a tumor. It is especially important to limit radiation exposure in the rapidly growing bodies of children since their cells are more susceptible to radiation damage. The long-term benefit for survivors of childhood cancer treated with proton therapy is a reduced risk of developing radiation induced chronic illness, low growth hormone production, secondary cancer or impaired IQ.
The most common tumors in children treated with proton therapy at UF Health Proton Therapy Institute are ependymoma, craniopharyngioma, low-grade glioma, rhabdomyosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma and medulloblastoma. Over 200 of these children will be treated in 2015. “Since the majority of our pediatric patients are treated for sarcomas and brain tumors near critical healthy tissue, it is paramount to avoid unnecessary radiation exposure which can compromise growth and development,” said Daniel J. Indelicato, M.D., associate professor and director of pediatric radiotherapy at the University of Florida. “Our goal is to cure children with high-dose radiation but still avoid side effects.”
“The advantages for children who have tumors treated with protons are quite significant,” said Nancy P. Mendenhall, M.D., medical director of UF Health Proton Therapy Institute and associate chair and professor of radiation oncology at UF. “Survivorship for our youngest patients will mean both a longer life and a healthy life free from the late effects of conventional radiation treatment.”
The pediatric radiotherapy program at UF Health Proton Therapy Institute is unique in its multidimensional scope of care, which includes dedicated pediatric radiation oncologists, specialized pediatric nurses, pediatric anesthesiologists, experienced radiation therapists, a pediatric social worker, and a full-time child life specialist. This comprehensive approach has become a model within the field and draws pediatric patients from 36 states and 20 countries. Since many pediatric tumors are treated with a combination of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy, the University of Florida partners with Nemours Children’s Specialty Clinic and Wolfson Children’s Hospital to provide the full-spectrum pediatric oncology care. Together, these institutions offer over 20 advanced clinical trials for children with cancer. In 2015, over 95% of pediatric patients treated at the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute were enrolled on a clinical study.
As part of an academic health center, a fundamental component of the University of Florida pediatric program is education. The doctors at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute are training the next generation of pediatric radiation oncologists. This includes residents from UF, the Moffitt Cancer Center, and the Mayo Clinic. In addition, UF began the first radiation oncology fellowship dedicated to the subspeciality of pediatric proton therapy in 2011.