Despite having no medical school, Hampton University is one of the leading research institutions on cancer treatment.
With a top-rated medical physics program and a faculty team that has nine patents on a breast cancer detection device, university president William R. Harvey says it’s time to make an even bigger investment into fighting cancer.
Thanks to Harvey’s desire to make cancer research one of the university’s top priorities, Hampton is set to unveil its own proton treatment center. The Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute (HUPTI) will be the largest, first free-standing, and, according to university officials, the most state-of-the-art cancer treatment center in the nation. It will only be the seventh proton institute in the nation, and the first to be built at a historically Black college or university.
The project’s costs could exceed $200 million, but Harvey says the institute’s value in fighting cancer cannot be measured in numbers.
“Cancer is such a plague on society … it’s also a health disparity issue,” he says. “This is something that will ease human misery and save lives.”
The institute could have special importance in Virginia, particularly in the university’s own backyard. According to the Virginia Cancer Registry, one out of every three people in Virginia will get cancer at some point in life, with higher rates for Black women than White women.
Hampton Roads also leads the nation in prostate cancer deaths, and Black men have significantly higher rates of prostate cancer than White men.
“When you add all of that together, the question becomes not so much why [build the institute], but why not sooner,” Harvey says.
Before proton therapy, cancer patients generally had three treatment options: radiation, chemotherapy or surgery. Radiation sends a radioactive beam (the same beam used for mammograms and X-rays) through the infected cells to prevent them from regenerating — but it also damages the surrounding healthy tissue.
Chemotherapy kills all cells that divide rapidly (including bone marrow and hair follicle cells), while surgery could cause further damage or death.
Unlike these methods, proton treatment only affects the intended cancerous cells. It uses a different kind of beam and focuses the maximum amount of energy within the precise dimensions of the tumor, thus sparing healthy cells. Researchers say there are little to no side effects, and treatment only takes one minute a day for five days. It is particularly helpful with prostate, breast, lung, ocular and pediatric cancers.
“With children, X-ray radiation can stunt growth and cause problems, with prostate cancer you can nick a nerve and cause sexual problems and incontinence … and the eye is such a small organ,” says Harvey. “You have to be precise, even with the lungs and other [organs]. That’s why this treatment is so good.”
It is also more expensive than traditional methods. However, Harvey believes that since there is no cost of recovery or rehabilitation and no added stress or side effects, the cost difference balances out and makes for money well spent.
The institute will feature five treatment rooms. An estimated 2,000 patients will be treated each year for different types of cancer. The Oncology Association of Virginia will be providing physician services, with Dr. Christopher Sinesi serving as medical director.
Pennie Faircloth, who works for the American Cancer Society as the mission delivery manager for Hampton Roads and the surrounding region, says the institute is likely to make a significant impact on the local community once it opens.
“The average patient [in Hampton Roads] doesn’t know about proton treatment, but once it’s open the word will get around quickly,” Faircloth says. “For any campus to bring such a thing to the community is just absolutely amazing, especially since such an institution would cost around $225 million to $250 million dollars.”
Though Hampton has received some state and federal funding, including $4.2 million from the National Institutes of Health, it is primarily using its own funds and financing from JPMorgan Chase to pay for the project.
The project began in 2007 and is currently two months ahead of schedule, according to Harvey. He says the institute will begin treating patients next year and will be fully operational in 2011.
There is already a waiting list for treatment. The American Cancer Society is waiting to provide on-the-ground support for the institute and its patients.
“We stand ready to support this in anyway we can,” Faircloth says. “Our goal is to make sure services are readily available to every cancer patient that walks through that door.”
Harvey says the institute’s life-saving measures will include more than treatment, but proactive and preventive care for people at risk.
“It’s a breakthrough in the fight against cancer … we will spend a lot of time educating people,” Harvey adds.
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