Milestone reached in bringing new cancer treatment to Wisconsin

With no proton therapy centers in Wisconsin, patients have to travel out of state for treatment

Green material covers the exterior of the building under construction
Attendees await a ceremonial lifting of the project’s final beam Thursday, March 7, 2024, at Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A new type of cancer treatment is one step closer to debuting in southeast Wisconsin.

The last structural beam was added last week at the proton therapy clinic under construction at the Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center at Froedtert Hospital campus in Wauwatosa.

Proton therapy is a type of radiation therapy that delivers a precisely targeted dose of radiation directly to a cancer tumor using high-energy beams of proton particles rather than X-rays. This can help prevent damage to adjacent organs or critical tissue.

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The technology will be used primarily to treat pediatric solid tumors and tumors in adults at the base of the skull or close to the heart and spine. With more testing, it could potentially benefit certain types of liver, pancreatic and breast cancer.

Christopher Schultz, professor and chair of the department of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said he’s been waiting for proton therapy to arrive in the state.

“When did it make sense to add it to our toolbox? We think now is that time,” Schultz said.

Two men in hard hats speak on the site.
Senior project manager Jeff Senn, left, and Chairman of Radiation Oncology at Medical College of Wisconsin Christopher Schultz, right, speak to reporters during a tour of the construction site Thursday, March 7, 2024, at Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The center is on track to treat the first patient in mid-2025. The hope is to treat up to 350 patients a year by 2030. Schultz said pediatric patients will take priority.

“We’re delivering real precise, focused localized treatment,” Schultz said.

There are 44 operational proton therapy centers in 24 states; Wisconsin is not one of them. The closest centers are in Chicago or Rochester, Minnesota.

“That’s an added burden to people that have cancer, particularly young families, to have to travel on top of having to go through what can be difficult and certainly emotionally taxing treatment,” Schultz said.

UW Health is also in the process of introducing proton therapy to its Eastpark Medical Center, which is set to open this fall.

Schultz predicts proton therapy could grow in popularity by up to 40 percent over the next five years.

Strategic design to optimize patient experience

Mevion Medical Systems manufactured the technology that delivers the cancer treatment. Curt Kienast, the company’s chief operating officer, compared the technology to a 3D printer.

“We take radiation out of the machine and layer by layer, treat a tumor — the exact three dimensional shape,” Kienast said.  

He said the building is an “architectural marvel” and will complement the device.

“This really allows us to reduce the size of the overall technology and fit into existing places where the hospital wants to ideally optimize their workflow,” Kienast said.

The treatment center will be connected to the existing radiation center at the hospital so patients can easily travel between buildings for different treatments.

Concrete walls with rectangular spaces in the side for scanning equipment is under construction.
Construction is ongoing on the cancer treatment facility Thursday, March 7, 2024, at Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

During proton therapy treatment, patients won’t see most of the technology that is generating the protons. Kienast said that helps patients feel comfortable.

“Their experience will be very limited to a more natural feeling of any of the other treatment modalities that the department has,” Kienast said.

According to Schultz, this is one of the few proton therapy centers that will have a high-quality in-room CT scan, making for more efficient and precise treatment.

Next steps

While the “topping out” ceremony was a milestone for the building project, the focus now turns to finishing construction and installing and testing the technology. All the while, staff will be trained and workflows will be redesigned to incorporate the new treatment.

Froedtert & MCW are recruiting physicians and physicists who have special training relating to proton therapy to complement clinical faculty.

“It’s a major milestone as we move forward to treating our first patient,” Schultz said.