By Sandy K. Johnson

The X-ray technology that dominated radiation treatment of cancer for decades is giving way to proton beam radiation that can kill cancer cells with precision and leave healthy cells unscathed.

Mayo Clinic in Phoenix invested $182 million in the future of proton beam treatment, roughly half of that for the equipment and half for the infrastructure that surrounds it. Of an estimated 900,000 cancer patients who need radiation each year, Mayo’s goal is that 15 percent of them can use the ultra-precise proton beam therapy rather than traditional radiation.

There are caveats. Some cancers are better candidates than others – pediatric cancer, brain tumors, left breast cancers among them. And it is more expensive, although Mayo is currently charging the same price for proton beam treatment as for traditional radiation.

And there are the heart-breaking decisions about who will receive the new treatment and who won’t. Dr. Sameer Keole, a radiation oncologist at Mayo, said there must be a two-year life expectancy to allow a patient to try the proton beam treatment. He said British protocol requires five years. Both of those are, Keole said, “incredibly arbitrary.”