Costly cancer treatment comes under fire

Despite a lack of evidence that proton-beam therapy actually is more effective than traditional therapy at treating prostate cancer, both hospitals and patients continue to long for the expensive technology, Bloomberg News and The Washington Post reported.

Proton therapy centers--dubbed the "death star of American medical technology" by Harvard University health economist Amitabh Chandra due to their size and cost--run as much as $200 million to build and "require a football-field sized building to house," according to the Bloomberg News article.

But because of the potential revenue stream--one machine can generate $50 million annually, according to the article--hospitals continue to push to get the technology. Case in point: In the last month alone, one proton therapy center opened in Somerset, N.J., DOTmed News reported, while a second center under construction in Seattle just received its cyclotron-the core piece of equipment used in proton therapy, according to a company announcement.

What's more, a study published last month in the Archives of Internal Medicine determined that patients who lived closer to proton therapy centers were more likely to opt for such treatment. According to the Washington Post article, the study determined the cost for a 60-year-old man to receive proton therapy is more than $63,500.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of North Carolina determined that such machines caused higher rates of bowel side effects, but not better outcomes for patients, according to the Bloomberg article.

"Statements about superiority are just unjustified, they are unsupportable," radiation oncologist W. Robert Lee of the Duke University School of Medicine said, according to Bloomberg. "The bottom line is that it hasn't been proven to be better."

Allan Thornton, a radiation oncologist at Hampton (Va.) University's proton-beam center, countered Lee's claim, saying that a yet-to-be-published study he conducted found that protons lower rates of rectal bleeding that stem from years of prostate cancer radiation treatments. "The data is pretty clear," he said in the article.

In addition, a patient at the Hampton University center, Alfred Scott, told Bloomberg that proton therapy got rid of his cancer and caused no adverse side effects.

"Everyone who gets prostate cancer should try this," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind."

To learn more:
- read the Bloomberg News article
- here's the Washington Post piece
- check out this Seattle Cancer Care Alliance announcement
- read this DOTmed News story

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