Proton therapy is promoted as the most precise, effective, and desirable form of external radiation treatment for certain types of cancer. Despite these facts, the number of functioning facilities is very low. According to The National Association for Proton Therapy there are only six operating proton centers and four currently under construction in the United States.

The main reason for this is cost. Proton therapy requires heavy equipment and heavy building structures. The current cost for a typical, multitreatment, fully equipped proton therapy facility starts at around $100 million, with the equipment cost making up a significant portion of this capital expense.

However, the perception is that there is a very high demand for these treatment facilities. The argument is based on the belief that 15-30% of the 1.4 million people diagnosed with cancer each year would benefit specifically from proton therapy. As a result of the perceived demand, leading cancer treatment centers across the country are engaging in what has been called the “next nuclear arms race” of cancer treatment. In response, private- and investor-owned development companies and new equipment manufacturers are entering this market. Several new and existing equipment manufacturers are working with scientists from leading institutions to develop significantly smaller accelerator systems, which will drastically reduce equipment and facility costs. But these “next generation” systems are at best two to four years away from being available in the market place.

In spite of all the barriers, the growing recognition, progress, and potential for proton therapy are driving the current limited development of new treatment centers. If the current perceived demand is correct, the future promises exciting development in proton therapy technology and the facilities delivering it to patients. Once the developing “next generation” equipment innovations are perfected, an even more rapid expansion of proton therapy facilities should almost immediately occur.