by Tom Parisi
NIU is aiming for a late spring groundbreaking on its planned world-class proton therapy cancer treatment and research center.
Toward that end, the NIU Board of Trustees last week approved a series of resolutions enabling the plan to move forward on several fronts.
The $160 million state-of-the-art center is earmarked for 13 acres at the DuPage National Technology Park in West Chicago.
Proton therapy is an advanced, highly effective form of radiation treatment, utilizing proton beams to treat cancer. Non-invasive, painless and precise, it is a preferred treatment in certain adult and pediatric cancers. Although the treatment is covered by numerous insurance plans, proton therapy is currently unavailable in Illinois.
“Illinois needs a world-class, university-based proton therapy facility,” said Cherilyn G. Murer, a health care executive who also serves as chair of the NIU Board of Trustees.
Murer noted that, in addition to treating patients, the Northern Illinois Proton Treatment & Research Center will be a national leader in particle-therapy cancer research and in the training of the next generation of proton-therapy health care professionals.
Currently, proton therapy is offered at only five centers nationwide, though several new centers are under construction or in the planning stages.
“NIU intends to become the university in the U.S. that trains people to staff future proton therapy facilities,” Murer said. “NIU will build curricula that provide university education and training for medical physics, oncology nursing, related allied health fields, engineering and accelerator physics, as well as programming in radiation therapy and dosimetry and residency and fellowship opportunities for physicians, all in proton therapy.”
The non-profit center is targeted to open in 2010. It will treat as many as 1,500 patients a year.
The NIU Board of Trustees urged the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board to act expeditiously on the proton center’s pending application.
Further, trustees recommended that the Northern Illinois Proton Treatment & Research Center, LLC, the business unit responsible for the proton therapy project:
Proceed with the development of an integrated academic and clinical proton cancer therapy and research center.
Enter into a land development agreement with CenterPoint Properties, the master developer of the DuPage National Technology Park, to construct the facilities that will house the proton therapy center.
Establish an affiliation with a health care provider to deliver quality clinical care. NIU representatives are involved in conversations with several nationally known medical centers.
Enter into detailed negotiations with two European providers of specialized equipment for the delivery of proton therapy. The board asked for completion of a final contract with one of those providers by the end of April.
“I don’t think I’m overstating the issue when I say this is one of the most important endeavors the university has ever undertaken,” NIU President John Peters said.
“Our actions demonstrate the university’s historic commitment to service and outreach in the northern Illinois region,” he added. “Proton therapy will provide hope to cancer patients in Illinois and beyond. It is a proven, effective treatment that will save thousands of lives and improve the quality of life for countless others.”
Proton therapy is recognized as the most precise and advanced form of radiation treatment available today, according to the National Association for Proton Therapy (NAPT).
Conventional radiation often radiates healthy tissue in its path and surrounding the tumor site. Proton therapy more efficiently and precisely targets the tumor.
The proton beam has a low entrance dose into the human body, a high dose designed to cover the entire tumor, and no exit dose exposure beyond the tumor. Consequently, healthy tissue and organs are left intact.
The NIU center will deliver proton therapy for the treatment of pediatric, prostate and head/neck cancers, as well as for treatment of patients suffering from certain ophthalmologic disorders.
The university has financing plans for center construction and has received a total of $7.3 million in federal funding for planning and development of curricula for education and training programs designed for health care professionals working in proton facilities.
The center’s location in the DuPage National Technology Park, part of a 35- to 40-acre site available for a health care campus, in some ways brings the proton therapy technology full circle.
The park is contiguous to the northern boundary of Fermilab, which in the mid-1980s assisted in building and assembling the country’s first hospital-based proton treatment system for Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.
With Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois has continued to be a world leader in the development of accelerator technologies, and NIU has relied on the expertise of scientists at both laboratories in planning for the new proton center.
“It’s time to bring proton therapy home to Illinois,” Murer said.
“We have the physics and engineering expertise to not only excel in the clinical operation of a proton cyclotron accelerator, but also the technical knowledge to grow the field of accelerator research to the next generation of clinical machines involved in proton treatment and delivery,” she added.
The Northern Illinois Proton Treatment & Research Center, LLC, has already begun research into the development of a CT scanning device utilizing proton beams, said John Lewis, project director and associate vice president at NIU for Administration and Outreach. The hope is that the device would lessen patient exposure to radiation and provide higher quality CT images.
“One of the things that makes this project so exciting is that, from its very inception, we are planning the next generation of this treatment,” Lewis said. “Our intent is to make Chicagoland the center of cutting-edge proton therapy and academic programs.”
For more information on NIU’s proton therapy center, see www.niu.edu/protontherapy.