Proton-beam therapy is massively expensive—$100+ million facilities, each treatment twice as much as radiation—and not proven to be any safer or more effective than other cancer treatments. So why are U.S. hospitals racing to build new proton-beam facilities?
Financial incentives, and the wrong ones, according to a skeptical piece at Bloomberg. To house the 200-ton cyclotron that accelerates protons to 93,000 miles per second, the facilities have to be as big as football fields, with 16-feet-thick concrete walls. Hospitals can afford to build them because proton-beam therapy is “extremely favorably reimbursed” by Medicare and many private insurance companies, says Sean Tunis, CEO of the Center for Medical Technology Policy. To foot the construction bill, hospitals will have to push the treatment aggressively to cancer patients.
Yesterday the Food and Drug Administration gave its OK to Provenge, a new treatment for prostate cancer. It’s not a “vaccine” in the old-fashioned sense, but it could be a way to make the immune system wake up and take notice to the presence of cancer.
In a standard vaccination, a person receives an attenuated or dead version of a microorganism to spur them to produce antibodies (against, for example, the virus that causes smallpox). Provenge is not that—it doesn’t prevent prostate cancer—but it is a variation on the theme. To oversimplify quite a bit: with Provenge vaccination begins with a blood draw. Blood is then sent to the lab, where technicians extract immune cells known as antigen presenting cells (APCs) from the sample. From here, Dendreon combines the immune cells with proteins that are prevalent on the surface of prostate cancer cells. An immune boosting substance is also added into the mix [TIME]. That awakens the APCs, which doctors then inject back into the bloodstream. And once there, the APCs put white blood cells on high alert against cancer.