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Proton therapy center

The first proton therapy center on Florida’s Gulf Coast is scheduled to break ground this summer on the northern edge of Estero in south Lee County with the first cancer treatments available there in 2024.

Southwest Florida Proton will feature cutting-edge medical technology in a 35,000-square-foot medical building to be built at 9961 Estero Oaks Drive, 4.4 acres on the northwest corner of Estero Parkway and Three Oaks Parkway. “That site will be under full-blown construction within the next three months,” said Dr. Arie Dosoretz, a board-certified radiation oncologist who is helping to establish the local treatment center.

The more than $65 million center will elevate regional cancer care to the highest level, Dosoretz said Thursday while revealing the project’s site. “Southwest Florida Proton will be a beacon for cancer care in Southwest Florida and beyond,” he said. “We envision Southwest Florida Proton as a destination for cancer patients seeking the best cancer care, both from a patient-doctor relationship and a patient-technology standpoint.”

Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation therapy that uses charged proton particles to destroy cancer cells. Protons have the ability to travel into a tumor and not beyond it, which can reduce potential side effects and complications during and after cancer treatments. 

Proton therapy has proven to be an effective treatment option for cancers of the brain, spine, breast, esophagus, head and neck, liver, lung, eye, pancreas and prostate, as well as lymphomas and soft tissue sarcomas. Studies have indicated that proton therapy can be a safer option for patients who have undergone prior radiation treatment and can reduce the long-term risks of radiation in pediatric cancer patients.

The vacant property at Estero Oaks was purchased last September for $3,274,000, Lee County property records show. Dosoretz, a founding partner of Fort Myers-based Advocate Radiation Oncology, has secured a team of private investors who will finance the purchase of complex medical equipment, construction costs and operation of the treatment center. With the rising cost of supplies, materials and the global supply chain issues, the project now exceeds $65 million, Dosoretz said. “It’s a big investment,” he said. “It is a lot of money but, at the end of the day, this is a demand-driven business that can support something like that. We don’t look at this as some sort of a gamble. First of all, there’s a mission behind it and there’s a reason to do it. But, second of all, the economics work.”

At the center of Southwest Florida Proton will be ProteusONE, an innovative machine from Belgium-based Ion Beam Application (IBA) that delivers the most clinically advanced form of proton radiation therapy for cancer care. It was a nine-month process to choose IBA and negotiate a contract, Dosoretz said. The building, which will be staffed by about 30 employees, will also include diagnostic imaging capabilities, exam rooms and administrative offices.

“It’s a very complex project,” Dosoretz said. “There’s a lot of know-how that’s required. There’s a lot of expertise. You can’t just do this sort of willy-nilly. The technology’s too complicated and the number of moving parts is too complicated to sort of halfway do it.”

Project manager Ricardo Andisco of Fort Myers-based Forum Construction and Consulting Inc. will be working with other companies such as Stantec and Goldstein-Milano to build the center. “These machines are like installing a rocket ship. They’re enormous,” Dosoretz said. “The machine itself is housed in a 5,000-square-foot room. It has to have all sorts of special connections in terms of plumbing, electricity, everything else, and so you can’t just do this with a run-of-the-mill construction group. You need people who understand what’s involved in these things.”

Most health insurance policies will cover proton therapy for cancer treatment, but a lot of variables are considered, Dosoretz said. “There is a little bit of a case-by-case situation,” he said. “Cancer is never one size fits all.”

Dr. Arie Dosoretz

Dr. Arie Dosoretz

The National Association for Proton Therapy (NAPT) lists 34 proton centers in the United States and three under development. Southwest Florida patients seeking proton therapy now must travel across the state to receive this type of treatment, so the service is needed. 

“Here, we have one of densest populations of cancer in the country and we don’t have a proton machine, at best, within two-and-a-half hours. So, it’s not reasonable for people in this community to not have access to this,” Dosoretz said.

The region’s medical tourism is also expected to experience a boost with the addition of Southwest Florida Proton. “The cancer community is extremely well-informed, and patients travel near and far to be treated by the nation’s top doctors,” Dosoretz said. “The Estero location is convenient for residents of Southwest Florida, but its proximity to the airport, hotels, restaurants and attractions makes it appealing to out-of-state patients who can enjoy the region’s assets while undergoing treatment.”

Southwest Florida Proton will work in association with the existing Advocate Radiation Oncology to offer convenient, world-class radiation treatments to patients, Dosoretz said. Since the launch of its first center in 2019 in Port Charlotte, Advocate now has seven offices in South Florida with several additional locations under development. “Honestly, I think there’s a lot of good doctors around the country, around the world, who know how to do radiation,” he said. “But, in our area, I don’t think there’s anybody better than us.”

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