By Arthur Lightbourn
Dr. Carl J. Rossi, Jr. is a wiry running enthusiast who clocks 30 to 40 miles a week, a private pilot who has logged 4,000 flying hours, and a radiation oncologist who has treated 9,000 prostate cancer patients with “state-of-the-art” proton radiation over the past 20 years, more than any other physician in the world.
Rossi, 49, is also the newly-recruited medical director of the $220 million Scripps Proton Therapy Center being built in Mira Mesa and scheduled to open in spring 2013.
When completed and fully-staffed, the 102,000-square-foot facility, the second such hospital-based facility in California, will be able to treat up to 2,400 patients annually.
The construction is on schedule; the building is almost 90 percent complete, and the giant cyclotron and other equipment have been installed.
“What’s going to take the next year is finishing up the construction and “commissioning the machine, turning it on, making sure it works as designed and begin doing a lot of physical measurements in the treatment rooms so we know what radiation dose is being delivered under certain circumstances,” Rossi said.
Rossi’s job at the moment is to brief insurers on the treatments that will be available, and talking to local physicians and radiation oncologists to find ways they can be involved with the center, and starting to recruit oncologists that will staff the center.
Prior to joining Scripps, Rossi, for 20 years, served as chief of genito-urinary and lymphoma radiation oncology services at Loma Linda University Medical Center and director of the first and currently the only hospital-based proton therapy center in California.
Currently, there are nine proton therapy patient treatment centers in the U.S. and only 37 worldwide.
The high cost of the cyclotron, the powerhouse behind proton technology, and its sophisticated supportive equipment, has restricted wider use of proton therapy throughout the world since it was first conceived for use as a cancer fighting therapy in 1946 and first used to treat patients in 1954.
The Scripps proton treatment center is being developed by Advanced Particle Therapy (APT), LLC, of San Diego. APT has arranged the financing to build and equip the center. APT will also manage the building and maintain the equipment.
Scripps Clinic Medical Group (SCMG) is overseeing the medical services at the facility and Scripps Health will provide its clinical management services.
Proton therapy is considered one of the most advanced methods of treating cancer tumors because of its ability to accurately accelerate a beam of high dosage radiation, in the form of protons, positively charged atomic particles, to the DNA of cancer cells, ultimately causing their death or interfering with their ability to proliferate, while sparing more of the surrounding healthy tissue than does traditional X-ray radiation therapy.
Cancerous cells are particularly vulnerable to attacks on their DNA because of their high rate of dividing and their reduced abilities to repair DNA damage.
We interviewed Dr. Rossi in his office at the Scripps Annex building on Campus Point Drive in La Jolla.
A major advantage of using protons, Rossi said, is its beam goes into a patient’s body in a low dosage, peaks and delivers a high dosage deposit on its target and stops; whereas traditional X-ray beams go in one side of the patient’s body, attack cancerous tissues, and continue on through healthy tissue until they exit out the other side.
Construction of the Scripps proton center began in October 2010. Installation of its 90-ton cyclotron, the driving force of the facility, began last October. The cyclotron will accelerate protons to speeds of 100,000 miles per second before the proton beam is channeled to a patient’s treatment room.
Being built on seven acres at 9577 Summers Ridge in Mira Mesa, the center will include five treatment rooms, 16 patient exam rooms and offices for 14 physicians.
The center is being built as a community resource to bring together patients, physicians and researchers from various providers in the fight against cancer, said Scripps Health President and CEO Chris Van Gorder.
Patients will be able to access the treatment through a referral to a specialist credentialed by the center.
Scripps Health and Rady Children’s Hospital have already announced plans to make the center available to treat Rady’s pediatric cancer patients.
Proton therapy is generally preferable to conventional X-ray radiation for child cancer patients whose growing organs are highly sensitive to radiation.
In contrast, Rossi said, the accuracy of proton beams with fewer side effects are ideal for pediatric patients and have been successfully used with children for more than 20 years.
Rossi was born in Anaheim, Calif., and was raised in the city of Orange. His dad was a chemistry professor for 20 years at what is now Chapman University. His mom was an elementary school teacher of English. He has one older sister.
“My dad — before he became a college professor — worked in the aerospace industry — and got frustrated with the boom and bust cycle of the industry.”
So, he encouraged his son to enter a profession in which he would have more control over his destiny.
Rossi eventually chose medicine, selecting a specialty — radiation oncology — in which he would be working directly with patients but would also have control over his time to pursue other interests.
At Claremont McKenna College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, Calif., he majored in biology and ran cross-country track, but also thoroughly enjoyed his liberal arts, non-scientific studies — particularly, he recalls, a course in 19th century English literature and a course in the history of Rome.
He earned his medical degree from Loyola University’s Strich School of Medicine, Maywood, Ill., in 1988, followed by his internship and residency in radiation oncology at Loma Linda University Medical Center, Loma Linda, Calif.
During his residency, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a lieutenant in the medical corps for five years and subsequently as a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve for an additional 12 years.
Loma Linda opened its proton therapy treatment center in 1990.
Rossi, while a resident, was involved in the proton therapy treatment of the facility’s first prostate cancer patient in 1991.
As director of the facility from 1993 until he joined Scripps recently, he went on to treat, he estimates, more than 9,000 prostate cancer patients.
“It was really being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “At Loma Linda, we would average several hundred prostate cancer patients a year. It’s a common cancer and I would treat the majority of them.”
In total, Loma Linda treated more than 250 types of cancers in addition to benign non-cancerous tumors with proton radiology.
The freedom from reoccurrence of prostate cancer after 10 years in patients with early detected, low-risk cancer treated with noninvasive proton therapy was over 90 percent at Loma Linda, Rossi said.
The best part of his work of his work as a radiation oncologist, he said, are his patients who have been able to resume normal, active lives as cancer survivors. “That’s pretty cool,” he said.
Carl J. Rossi, Jr., M.D.
Dr. Carl Rossi, who has treated more than 9,000 prostate cancer patients with proton radiation — more than any other physician in the world — is the newly-appointed medical director of the $220 million Scripps Proton Therapy Center being built in Mira Mesa and scheduled to open in spring 2013.
Carmel Valley and Redlands.
B.A. in biology, Claremont McKenna College, 1984; M.D., Loyola University, Stritch School of Medicine, 1988; internship and radiation oncology residency, Loma Linda University Medical Center, 1988-1992.
Lieutenant, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy, 1990-95; Lt. Cmdr., Medical Corps, U.S. Navy Reserve, 1995-2007.
Running, cycling, flying, physics, travel and literature.
Runs 30 to 40 miles a week and cycles.
“The Hills Beyond,” a collection of short stories by Thomas Wolfe.
Montaña de Oro State Park, near Morro Bay.
“Breaker Morant,” a 1980 award-winning Australian film about the court marshal of three Aussi soldiers accused of murdering prisoners during the Second Boer War in 1901.
As one of his favorite authors, Jack London, said: “I would rather be ashes than dust….The function of man is to live, not to exist.”