Coming to East Harlem: $300 million cancer center
Nearly nine years after a consortium of hospitals first started planning to bring a proton-beam therapy center to New York City, the more than $300 million project is nearing completion.
The New York Proton Center, on East 126th Street in East Harlem, features three 300-ton gantries, which rotate around patients to deliver radiation. They were on display during a tour of the construction site this week for media and city officials. The center expects to see its first patient in February 2019.
The project is a collaboration between Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Montefiore Health System and Mount Sinai Health System. It is managed by ProHealth Proton Management. The group, working with developer Murphy & McManus, bought the property from the city Economic Development Corp. for $14 million in 2015.
Proton-beam therapy offers an additional degree of precision compared to traditional photon-based radiation oncology. That helps oncologists limit exposure to nearby healthy tissue. There is evidence supporting its use in pediatric cancers and to treat tumors in the central nervous system, head and neck, and eyes, according to the Proton Center. "Pediatrics is the biggest need," said Dr. Shalom Kalnicki, chairman of radiation oncology at Montefiore.
The group first received certificate-of-need approval to build the 140,000-square-foot facility in 2010, but finding a site within New York City that could accommodate the massive equipment proved the greatest challenge, said Norton Travis, who has been involved with the project since its inception.
"The consortium remained steadfast that this should be done in the city of New York," Travis said. "The delay was not ambivalence in any way on the part of the group or the health department. We had approval since 2010; it was just, where can you make it happen?"
In East Harlem, the Proton Center found a location that provides access for patients, just blocks from the Lexington Avenue subway station and the Metro-North Railroad, but in a less residential part of the area, helping to avoid conflicts with neighbors. Outgoing City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was a champion of the facility, which is expected to treat 1,400 patients annually and employ 125 people, including a mix of high- and low-skill jobs.
In other parts of the country, proton therapy has been used to treat prostate cancer, but Dr. Simon Powell, Memorial Sloan Kettering's chair of radiation oncology, said the hospital is not using it for that purpose given the limited evidence that it is superior to traditional radiation for prostate cancer. Proton therapy costs about twice as much as traditional treatment, Powell said.
"Insurance is an evolving area, but insurance companies recognize the need for this therapy, and they're supportive of projects like this, whose goal is to demonstrate the need for it," he said. The state Health Plan Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Powell estimated that Memorial Sloan Kettering currently sends about 400 patients to other proton-therapy centers in the Northeast. The closest to the city is ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Somerset, N.J., which opened in 2012 and is run by ProCure Treatment Centers based in Bloomington, Ind. About 25 proton centers are in operation nationwide, with 10 under development.
The therapy's ability to limit radiation exposure can help lower costs in the long run, said Dr. Kenneth Rosenzweig, chairman of radiation oncology at Mount Sinai.
"If we can limit side effects and limit the cancer coming back, ultimately it's going to be a benefit both in the quality of life in our patients and in the costs," he said.
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