Proton Promises

March 29, 2006
Alumnus helps bring cutting-edge cancer treatment to Houston

Lying in a hospital bed with a broken leg and dislocated ankle, John Styles worried that his dreams of a college degree were dashed. As a freshman in 1954 with a four-year athletic scholarship to Baylor, the young man told then-head coach George Sauer his doctor's prognosis: that he would probably never play football again.
"[Coach] told me, 'I don't care. I'll keep you all four years in street clothes. You've got your scholarship," recalls Styles, the son of a sharecropper-turned-businessman who was born in a one-room dugout in Seymour, Texas.
"That made a lasting impression on me. That's what I got out of Baylor -- that they held up their end of the bargain," says Styles, who was fully able to rejoin his teammates during his last two years in college, graduated with a business degree in 1958 and began a career in the health care industry in 1966. "They treated me fairly and lived up to what my dad always told me to do: the right thing. For a young man who had nothing, that meant everything."
This life lesson -- doing the right thing -- now has translated into Styles' partnership with Sanders Morris Harris, an investment banking firm, to build The University of Texas M.D. Anderson's new 92,500-square-foot proton therapy center, which in May will offer for the first time the cancer-treatment technology to patients in the southern United States.
Dreams for the Houston-based facility were realized in great part through the efforts of Styles' health care management group, The Styles Company, says Dan Fontaine, senior vice president for business development and regulatory affairs at M.D. Anderson.
Planning for the proton therapy center began in 1997, but was slowed by financial constraints and other hurdles. When a major financial backer dropped out of the $125 million project in 1999, it looked as if the center might not happen, Fontaine says.
Approached by a friend about getting his company involved, Styles began talking to members of the investment community, looking for ways to make the proton therapy center a reality in Houston. It was tricky at times. Since M.D. Anderson technically is a governmental agency, Styles had to find a way to merge private and public money.
"We've had an incredible relationship with John and The Styles Company over the 36 to 40 months it's taken to build this facility. Bringing it in on time and on budget is incredible," Fontaine says. "If I sound like I'm singing John's praises, I am. He generated a lot of interest and has probably advanced the science. None of this would have been built without him."
The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 1.3 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in 2006. Since most cancers develop as a tumor, treatment often centers on selectively destroying those cancer cells by surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. Proton therapy, the most advanced form of radiation therapy, targets cancerous tissue with a charged beam of protons, Styles says. Heavier than photons (traditional radiation), the protons' density causes them to travel in a straighter path through the body. This allows doctors to target tumor cells, controlling where the protons stop and deposit their radiation dose. More potent radiation is delivered precisely to the tumor and does not damage the delicate, healthy tissue surrounding it.
Because proton therapy is so precise, it can be used to treat many cancers that could not be reached as effectively through conventional radiation therapy, including those affecting the head, neck, brain, eye, lung and prostate. Pediatric tumors also are easier to target, Styles says.
Proton therapy has existed since the late 1940s, but because facilities capable of delivering such radiation were primarily research centers, it was difficult to treat most patients, according to The Styles Company Web site. Doctors also were limited by their inability to pinpoint where tumors were growing and their exact sizes and shapes. Advances in imaging and computer technology in the 1970s and '80s, such as CT, MRI and PET scanners, enabled doctors to map the tumor locations to within fractions of a millimeter.
The world's first hospital-based proton treatment facility opened in Loma Linda, Calif., in 1990, with a second in Boston in 2002. M.D. Anderson's facility will be the third.
"To think, a poor country boy has had a lifetime of working with a lot of really bright people who really care about what they are doing. And what they are doing is critical," says Styles, who has developed more than 50 hospitals and other health care facilities during the last 40-plus years and now runs the company with his two sons and grandson. "I've spent my life working with and learning from people who have so much to teach."
The proton therapy center, he says, has been one of the high points in his career. And although he has no intention of retiring soon, helping create the center would be a meaningful finishing touch.
"I am so fortunate to do something that really does reward me and fill a need that I have to do something good and significant," he says. "This is major league -- that I can play a small part in things that really matter and possibly make the difference between life and death."-- Additional reporting by Franci Rogers
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