by Tom Parisi
In the field of particle physics, which often makes use of high-tech circular particle accelerators, what goes around comes around.
The same could be said of medical physicist George Coutrakon, who left Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in 1987 and moved to the West Coast to help build the world’s first hospital-based proton therapy treatment system for fighting cancer.
Coutrakon’s career is now coming full circle. He returned this fall to the Chicago area as the newly named technical director of the $159 million Northern Illinois Proton Treatment and Research Center (NIPTRC), an NIU initiative under construction in Chicago’s western suburbs.
For the past 18 years, Coutrakon served as director of proton accelerator physics and operations at Loma Linda University Medical Center in southern California. He also has worked as a consultant on various proton therapy center startups in Italy and the United States, including two years with the NIPTRC project.
Coutrakon’s new full-time post is a joint appointment with the Department of Physics and NIPTRC. He will oversee the proton therapy center’s equipment installation and commissioning of the proton beam for cancer treatment.
Coutrakon also will develop equipment and beam delivery systems for a research-focused radiobiology program at the center and is working with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to initiate a medical physics graduate program. The goal is to provide a master’s degree in medical physics at NIU, where he also will teach classes.
Under construction at the DuPage National Technology Park, the proton center will offer state-of-the-art cancer treatment while also advancing research on proton therapy, a noninvasive and precise form of radiation for certain types of pediatric and adult cancers. NIU and NIPTRC officials broke ground this past summer after state officials approved the project, the first of its kind in Illinois.
“It’s a terrific project,” Coutrakon says. “The center will have a balance between academic and clinical use. It holds a lot of potential for cancer research, and the affiliation with Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation further strengthens the project.”
The Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation (NMFF) will supply radiation oncologists to provide proton therapy to patients.
“We’re thrilled to have George as a full-time member of our team,” says John Lewis, NIPTRC executive director. “We were seeking the most experienced and qualified medical physicist in the field of proton therapy, and George Coutrakon was at the top of the list. He’s really been a pioneer in the field of proton therapy for the past two decades.”
“His Fermilab roots and his extensive experience with startup proton therapy facilities will be especially helpful,” adds NIU Provost Raymond Alden, a member of the proton center’s Board of Managers.
Coutrakon earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1983 from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He spent more than a decade conducting research at Fermilab, first as a graduate student and later as a research associate.
It was Philip Livdahl, former deputy director of Fermilab, who helped convince Coutrakon to take a position as a medical physicist with Loma Linda University Medical Center, which was working with Fermilab on the first hospital-based proton treatment system
“Livdahl told me there would be many future opportunities in the field of proton therapy, and he was right,” Coutrakon says. “What I found interesting about proton therapy was its ability to focus the beam on a tumor and spare healthy tissue in a way that other radiation therapies could not do.”
Coutrakon worked on the design and construction of radiation detectors for the beam delivery system at Loma Linda, as well as beam-line commissioning. The accelerator was built at Fermilab, and then disassembled for shipping to California. At Loma Linda, a team of 50 to 60 physicists, engineers and technicians worked round the clock for a year in order to install and calibrate the system.
“When we started commissioning the beam in July of 1990, we had three shifts a day,” Coutrakon says. “It was just as busy at 3 in the morning as it was at 3 in the afternoon.”
Loma Linda treated its first patient for an ocular melanoma Oct. 22, 1990.
“It was a success,” Coutrakon recalls. “Statistically, the cure rate for ocular melanoma is 95 percent with protons. The only other modality with comparable success is removal of the eye.”
Also in 1990, Coutrakon was named director of proton accelerator physics and operations at Loma Linda. In this role, he supervised the technical aspects of expanding the center with a research area and three high-tech cancer treatment rooms, each equipped with tube-shaped 90-ton gantries.
Each gantry encircles the patient and allows for delivery of the proton beam at any angle. The same infrastructure, completed by 1994, remains in use today at Loma Linda. The proton center there has treated about 12,000 patients.
Coutrakon’s other responsibilities at Loma Linda included ensuring the proton beam quality, training the staff of accelerator operators and overseeing system upgrades. His duties will be much the same once the Northern Illinois Proton Treatment and Research Center is completed.
For now, however, job one is to make certain that new equipment meets specifications and is installed and ready to treat the first patient in 2010. Toward this end, Coutrakon will hire three to five medical physicists to assist with commissioning the beam.
“It’s an exciting time to be working with all the different teams at NIU on new ideas and ways to launch a top proton therapy and research center,” Coutrakon says. “There’s a lot of creativity at this stage because the technology has advanced so far from the 1990s. It reminds me of the early stages at Loma Linda.”