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South Lee site will be first in SWFL to offer proton therapy cancer tool

Special to WGCU
It takes three stories to house the equipment for proton therapy. The equipment costs anywhere from $20 million to $28 million.

The land’s been scraped bare, the brick and mortar will come soon. By the start of 2025, Southwest Florida will have its first proton therapy center to fight cancer.

Dr. Ari Dosoretz is the force behind Southwest Florida Proton. He started planning the project three years ago.

Ali Onuralp, vice president of sales in North America for IBA, the Belgium-based company that sells the proton machines, said he was at the gym when received an unsolicited call from Dosoretz.

"He had existing knowledge,” Onuralp said. “He always had this vision.”

IBA ended up with the contract to build, install and maintain the proton therapy machine known as Proteus 1.

The 35,000-square-foot building will sit on the northwest corner of Three Oaks and Estero parkways in south Lee County. It will cost more than $70 million and be the only proton center between Tampa and Miami.

“It’s the most advanced form of radiation therapy,” Onuralp said.

Proton therapy can be used near sensitive and hard-to-reach areas such as the spine, brain, throat and left-sided breast cancers, Dosoretz said.

Proton therapy is more precise than regular radiation treatments. It targets only the tumors, limiting damage to good tissue and causing fewer side effects.

It is especially helpful for infants and young children with cancer. It lowers the risk of children having a future cancer caused by normal radiation.

Dosoretz returned to Fort Myers in 2015, after receiving his medical degree and an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his residency at Yale University’s New Haven Hospital. He is a founding partner of Advocate Radiation Oncology, in Fort Myers, which will work with Southwest Florida Proton.

“I had the opportunity to stay in that environment,” he said of Yale and his other stops, “but I wanted to bring that level of care to where I’m from.”

He called proton therapy “a missing cancer tool in Southwest Florida.”

A tool might be an understatement. The accelerator, which speeds up the energy of the protons, weighs 110,000 pounds. The beams travel at two-thirds the speed of light. The gentry and counterweight, which rotates around the patient, weigh 150,000 and 40,000 pounds respectively.

The system costs between $20 million and $28 million, and it takes a three-story building to house them.

Rendering - Southwest Florida Proton Center (2).jpg
Special to WGCU
The 35,000-square-foot Southwest Florida Proton center is being built on the northwest corner of Estero and Three Oaks parkways. The first patients are expected in early 2025.

Once installed it takes 12 months to calibrate the machines. The beams shoot into the patient using sub-millimeter measurements. The company then signs off on 150 pages of tests before it becomes operable.

“Proton centers are not so common because they are large and expensive,” Dosoretz said. “You need a symphony of moving parts and people.”

The symphony includes technical people, engineers, physicists and doctors. Then there’s the staff of nurses and office managers. Onuralp said his company will have two people on site 24 hours a day.

There are about 40 proton therapy centers in the United States, according to the National Association of Proton Therapy.

“Florida’s density is quite impressive,” Onuralp said. “Florida’s the proton capital of the world.”

Still, the closest centers for Southwest Florida residents are two in Miami, one in Delray Beach and one in Orlando. Two centers are planned for Tampa Bay, Onuralp said.

Doseritz picked the Estero Parkway site because of the location.

“I wanted a position near Fort Myers and Naples, he said.

It’s not far from an Interstate 75 exit, and it’s near Southwest Florida International Airport.

Being near the airport is important because Dosoretz thinks the center can attract people from other parts of the country.

“It’s a nice place to come and stay for a while,” he said.

Patients do have to stay. Treatments can last from several days to several weeks.

“It’s not like once you have surgery you get to go home,” Dosoretz said.

But the therapy can cut down on the number of visits, Onuralp said. The technology makes it safer to increase the doses so it can cut down on the number of sessions.

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