Emma, UAB’s new 90-ton cancer-fighting cyclotron, is the coolest thing since sliced bread

Birmingham, Alabama, UAB Proton Therapy Center, cyclotron
Birmingham, Alabama, UAB Proton Therapy Center, cyclotron
Welcome, Emma! Photo via UAB University Relations

Talk about an entrance. On March 5, the roof was temporarily removed from the UAB Proton Therapy Center. Then a crane lowered a 90-ton cyclotron named Emma inside.

Birmingham, Alabama, UAB Proton Therapy Center, cyclotron
UAB literally raised the roof for Emma’s arrival at the Proton Therapy Center. Photo via UAB University Relations

Emma is essential machinery for a new form of radiation therapy, which barrages tumor sites with a concentrated beam of protons.

“The cyclotron is the piece of equipment that allows the protons to hit the speed they need to deliver radiation to the tumor.”

James A. Bonner, MD, chairman, UAB School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology
Birmingham, Alabama, UAB Proton Therapy Center, cyclotron, James A. Bonner, James Bonner
James A. Bonner, MD. Photo via UAB University Relations

Why It’s Cool

First, proton therapy treats a wide range of cancerous tumors. That includes tumors in the brain and central nervous system, eyes, gastrointestinal tract, head and neck, liver, lungs, prostate and spine, as well as some breast tumors. In some cases, it can even be useful in treating metastasized cancers.


Second, it’s especially a boon for treating pediatric cancers. Traditional radiation therapy damages tissue surrounding the tumor site, which is more problematic in children than in adults. But the precision of proton therapy minimizes damage.

So far, proton therapy is only available in 29 locations in the United States.

Journey to Birmingham

Birmingham, Alabama, UAB Proton Therapy Center, cyclotron
The last step in a very long journey. Photo via UAB University Relations

Before Tuesday’s dramatic entrance, Emma crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard a vehicles carrier named the MV Tugela. Next stop, the Georgia Ports Authority facility in Brunswick, Georgia, for off loading. Then, Emma hitched a ride on a 20-axle, 78-wheel truck, with front and back drivers, for a nearly 400-mile road trip to Birmingham.


Finally, a crew assembled a heavy-lift crane on 4th Avenue South, which lifted and deposited Emma safely inside her new home, the UAB Proton Therapy Center.

And that, folks, is how you deliver a 90-ton cyclotron. (Amazon Prime two-day shipping not available.)

Treatment Center Opening 2020

Birmingham, Alabama, UAB Proton Therapy Center, cyclotron
Emma shows off her hardware. Photo via UAB University Relations

Construction began on the three-story UAB Proton Therapy Center in January 2018. Located at 20th Street and 4th Avenue South, it’s expected to begin treating patients in early 2020.


Proton International at UAB owns the center, while UAB physicians and staff will operate it. Emma is one component in a proton therapy system made by Varian Medical Systems, a longtime UAB partner.

“Proton therapy is already having a tremendous impact on the health of people around the world. Experts conservatively estimate that about 250,000 cancer patients in the United States alone could benefit from proton therapy. We are excited to partner with UAB and put this outstanding tool into the hands of the best cancer fighters in Alabama.”

Chris Chandler, CEO, Proton International

And that’s not the only innovation in the works at UAB. Check out the university’s plans to complete its first three LEED-certified buildings by 2020.