The next generation of radiation therapy at St. Jude

Introducing the St. Jude Proton Therapy Center

With the first proton therapy center in the world dedicated solely to children, St. Jude combines the very best in personalized care with one of the most technologically advanced forms of radiation therapy available to patients.

A new era at St. Jude

Children with cancer deserve the best possible treatment. They also deserve to have the best quality of life after treatment and throughout their adult lives.

That’s why at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, we are leading the way in providing one of the most sophisticated forms of radiation therapy to our patients. The opening of the St. Jude Proton Therapy Center ushers in a new era for treating pediatric cancers, harnessing innovative technology to precisely destroy cancer cells while sparing the healthy tissue in a child’s growing body.

After extensive testing and development, the technology designed for our proton therapy system received a stamp of approval by the US Food and Drug Administration in November. Patients treated on our campus will have unmatched care and treatment for aggressive cancers, such as brain tumors, certain sarcomas and solid tumors, and Hodgkin lymphoma.

"There was no question that we were going to do this someday; we just had to wait for the right technology."

– Thomas Merchant, DO, PhD, Chair of St. Jude Radiation Oncology

The most sophisticated form of radiation therapy

Focusing the lethal effect of radiation on cancer cells while avoiding damage to healthy tissue is a major challenge in radiation oncology. For certain types of aggressive cancers, proton therapy offers tremendous advantages for children. 

Our new proton therapy system uses a fine beam of radiation only millimeters wide. With state-of-the-art accuracy and precise mapping, this powerful beam is delivered directly to the tumor. The beam uses protons created from hydrogen gas which are accelerated to more than half the speed of light. The nature of protons allows bursts of radiation to be delivered directly to the tumor but not beyond, sparing healthy tissue. Despite its power, patients do not feel the radiation beam during treatment.

A detailed planning process is required for each patient. Clinical and imaging information are combined to map the precise dimensions of the tumor. Armed with this data, the radiation team carefully determines how to position the patient to apply the radiation "spot by spot" and “layer by layer” with more precision than any other form of radiation therapy.

In addition to providing our patients with advanced treatment options, we are pioneering research that will further the optimal application of proton beam therapy in the treatment of pediatric patients with brain tumors, solid tumors and Hodgkin lymphoma. Many of the children who receive treatment at the center will be participating in a St. Jude clinical trial; the results of today’s research will help guide treatment decisions for tomorrow’s patients. 

The patient experience

From the outset, St. Jude looked to our patient families to help design a warm and welcoming atmosphere in the proton therapy center. Once a patient walks through the doors, a musical stairwell leads to the heart of the building. There, they are greeted with a rain forest-inspired waiting room filled with light. By design, our new center features three state-of-the-art treatment rooms, as well as preparation and recovery rooms for children who receive anesthesia. 

From the moment patients arrive at St. Jude, they are welcomed by a dedicated team to not only treat their cancer, but to help guide them through the emotional and practical issues that arise during and after treatment. From expert radiation oncologists, nurses, social workers and child life specialists to survivorship and neurocognitive researchers, the team at St. Jude is committed to family- and patient-centered care. 

A work of art, a labor of love

As the cornerstone of a four-year, $200 million construction project to enhance the hospital’s clinical and laboratory facilities, the proton therapy center demonstrates the hospital’s commitment to innovative research, treatment and collaboration.

Construction on the tower that houses the proton therapy center began in 2011 and took 1.5 million construction staff hours to complete. The state-of-the-art building also houses surgical suites, an intensive care unit, the new Computational Biology department and the Marlo Thomas Center for Global Education and Collaboration.

Equipment for the proton therapy center was designed and built in partnership with Hitachi, Ltd., a global company with a long track record in medical innovation. The center occupies more than 25,000 square feet. The gantry, which rotates around the patient to direct the proton beam, is three stories high and weighs more than 100 tons. The center sits at the heart of the St. Jude campus, providing easy and convenient access for patients receiving treatment.

The revolutionary technology coupled with exceptional patient care found at the St. Jude Proton Therapy Center establishes a new standard for treating childhood cancer patients.